The "crisis" in journalism is not about audiences abandoning it for "newer, shinier, digital models," but in figuring out how to monetize a growing appetite for information and a continuing interest in holding government institutions and others to account.
"Americans still demand that someone speak truth to power, whether that trusted voice is Walter Cronkite or Jon Stewart," said Kurt Wimmer, partner in the law firm of Covington & Burling, in a think piece for The Media Institute,
whose trustees include representatives of News Corp., Time Warner, Gannett, Viacom, Verizon, Microsoft, NBCU and AT&T.
One truth Wimmer says needs more attention is the power of search firms/aggregators like Google.
"It is only by considering the issue of dominance in online search and advertising, and their impact on content monetization, that the government can help journalists effectively weather the crisis that they face," according to Wimmer.
A member of the Institute's board of trustees, Wimmer maintains that the the key is finding a way to bridge the divide between the companies who are monetizing news (aggregators, search engines) but not creating it, and those creating it but not connected to the monetization that could fund more and better news. "The government need not enmesh itself in reinventing journalism, or in considering troublesome options such as subsidies and bailouts, he said.
Wimmer argues that the government should be looking, instead, at search engines in general, and Google in particular, pointing to its $23 billion in revenue in 2008 from monetizing others' content rather than creating it. But he was more concerned with Google's power than the size of its purse. "As we consider the crisis facing
the media today, should we be concerned that one entity controls access to content for virtually three out of every four Americans? The evidence is growing that we should," he said.
Both the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission are considering ways to insure the future of journalism in proceedings and/or workshops. The FTC has released a draft report on its inquiry that includes a number of proposals that address the concern about search engines and aggregators. The suggestions included ways to expand intellectual property rights to allow news sites to collect money from aggregators and search engines. One way would be to amend copyright laws to recognize a so-called "hot news" right not just in the expression, but the underlying facts, of a story, "often gathered at great expense." Another would be to hold that caching content, which search engines routinely do in order to conduct a search, constitutes copyright infringement not covered by fair use protections.
Google said last fall in comments during a two-day FTC event on the future of journalism that its Google News site was benefitting news content creators by generating traffic,
"Google makes it easy for people to find the news they're looking for and discover new sources of information, the company wrote in a Dec. 1 posting on its public policy blog. "Google sends about 4 billion clicks each month, or 100,000 per minute, to news publishers via Google News, web search and other services. Each click is an opportunity for publishers to show ads, win loyal readers and register users. They can also sell online subscriptions: news publishers can charge for their work and ensure that it's discovered through Google -- these two are not mutually exclusive."
Wimmer views matters differently. He cited a report from research firm Outsell that found that "nearly half" of Google News visitors scanned the headlines without clicking through to the sites. "As a result, Outsell concluded that, while aggregators like Google News may 'driv[e] some traffic to newspapers," they also "tak[e] a significant
share away," said Wimmer.