Waldman: No FCC Bailouts in Store for Media

Senior advisor is responsible for report on state and fate of industry in midst of change
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Steven Waldman, senior advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, believes that, theoretically speaking, there is no harm in the decline and fall of broadcast outlets and newspapers, so long as there is something immediately set to replace their useful function of delivering news and civic information.

While conceding that the world is not a theoretical construct, Waldman stands behind his point that the FCC is not out to rescue traditional media or to bury them. Instead, Waldman believes the responsibility comes with trying to figure out what, if anything, the government needs to do to preserve some of their traditional public-service functions in a world being deconstructed by new media.

Waldman is charged with coming up with a report to the commission on the state and fate of the media in the midst of radical change. But the industry should also expect to see his policy advice-gleaned with the help of part-timers, current staffers, and "kibitzers"-show up in everything from the national broadband plan to the ownership rule review.

That policy recommendation could include direct government subsidies, which he says are not incompatible with drawing a line in the sand between structural rules and meddling with content.

An open Internet is key to the future of journalism, he says, particularly the new media that will play a big role in that future.

Waldman, former president and founder of Beliefnet.com [Genachowski was on the board], combines new- and old-media backgrounds as a former print journalist in Washington with Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. As such, he says he can see beyond the slams on new media as folks in their pajamas, and old media as dinosaurs in their death throes.

He says, flatly, that the FCC is not out to take over the media-or reinstate the fairness doctrine, he adds, a disavowal that has become boilerplate over at the commission these days.

His perspective offers a look at the future of media through the eyes of the guy charged with helping figure it all out. B&C's John Eggerton spoke with Waldman last week about all of this and more. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Are you here to be the savior of traditional media, or to perform last rites and figure out what's next?

Obviously we are not looking at it as saving any particular company or industry. That is really not our job. We are looking at it in terms of preserving certain functions, in which I do include accountability journalism. If all the newspapers and TV stations disappeared tomorrow, in theory that could be fine if they were immediately replaced by something else that would serve the same function for citizens and democracy.

We are looking at it from the point of view of, are certain functions being performed? We fully expect that some of what was being done by newspapers won't be done by newspapers anymore. We are neutral on whether that matters. The question is whether or not someone or something is going to perform those functions.

Your former boss Rupert Murdoch (Beliefnet was bought by News Corp.) told the Federal Trade Commission that one way of helping the future of broadcast and newspaper journalism would be to clear away unneeded regulations, particularly the cross-ownership rules. Might that be part of a solution?

Yes. We are not designed to replace the ownership rule review proceeding. We'll just coordinate with the Media Bureau in doing the ownership rules. I do think that when you are looking at this whole issue, absolutely we should be looking at whether there are any obstacles in the form of government regulations that are making things harder, as well as whether there are new government approaches to promote the public interest. So in general, both removing obstacles and taking affirmative steps are on the table.

What is your charter, and what form will your recommendations take?

We are going to produce a report that looks at the state of news and information media and then makes recommendations for, at a minimum, FCC policy, government policy in general, and perhaps recommendations for other players as well.

Journalism is one part of it, but it is broader than that. We have been using the phrase "information needs of communities," which is borrowed from the Knight Commission [which produced a report on the future of journalism]. The reason we did that is because when you are looking at the future of media now, you need to look not only at traditional journalistic enterprises, but things like whether the government is providing information in ways that make it easier for journalists doing accountability journalism or make it easier for citizens to hold institutions accountable. That is why we are using lingo that is a little bit broader than just local news.

When will you have a report ready?

I have been studiously vague on setting a deadline until I get a better handle how things work at the FCC and how fast I can move on things. Certainly this year.

You have talked about there being obvious implications for the future of journalism in the broadband initiative. Have you made any recommendations in the national broadband plan?

Yes. I am working with the broadband team on parts of the report related to the media.

Have you talked to broadcasters and cable operators?

I am just starting to. I have had a couple of meetings with local broadcasters. It will absolutely be a critical part of this. We will probably have some workshops. I know there is a little bit of workshop fatigue so we will try to keep it to a minimum. We will try to spend as much time as possible with broadcasters and other media players to help figure this out.

What possible public-private partnerships have you been considering?

One of the questions we think we should look at is, what are the public-interest obligations in a digital age? I know this is a long-standing issue. We will look at that anew and see whether, if the goals are the same, there are ways to achieve that goal to better fit the 21st century.

So will you be making policy recommendations and proposals in a number of different proceedings as well as just the report?

Yes. I think my role and [that of] the working group we have assembled is both to create a report and to ensure that future-of-media issues are raised and properly ventilated on other things coming through at the FCC. Not that it isn't happening, but we will be having that as our special focus.

I am being a little vague since we have just started and mostly what we have is questions, not answers. But the one premise is that the chairman and I believe we are at a transformational moment. The first thing we have to do is make sure the FCC meets that moment in a smart way. That can mean a hundred different things, but as a basic premise we have to be paying attention to the radical transformational changes that are going on in the media world and making sure our policies are in the public interest.

The chairman has said that you have to take First Amendment concerns into account and not be suggesting the government could be dictating news content or coverage. How can you insure that this initiative is not going to undermine commercial media in an effort to save journalism in general?

We just have to be vigilant about it. It is not hard to see how government involvement in the content of media could spin off in destructive directions. Say, if you had some kind of government-funded program that had all sorts of strings attached it is easy to see how that could turn into a kind of weapon for government to maliciously influence the craft.

So it makes sense to be very sensitive. As a journalist-or as a former journalist I guess I have to say-I am very sensitive to that point. But it is true that the government is already very involved with the media.

How so?

Everything the FCC does affects the structure and organization of the media, and those often have very profound effects. Traditionally there has been a line between structural rules and ownership and micromanaging content, and I think that is a reasonable line in the sand.

One you would agree to hold to?

Yes.

But do you see a way for direct government subsidies without crossing that line?

Yes. If you look at public media, there is already government funding of content and they set up apparatus that puts layers of insulation so that even when government is involved it is in an indirect and insulated way.  So, it is possible for the government to help media in ways that don't run afoul of the First Amendment. In fact it has been happening throughout American history dating back to postal subsidies for newspapers but more recently to government support for public media, the public interest obligations at the FCC and the ownership rules. These are all examples of government policy that has potentially profound impact one way or another.

You said earlier that broadcasters and newspapers could theoretically go away if there was something to immediately take their place. But as a practical matter, that can't happen, can it?

No, I was making the point that I don't think it is the FCC's responsibility to save a particular company or even a particular industry. We have to look at broad public interest principles.

Long-term, yes, but short-term, since that is what we have and it is not immediately replaceable, doesn't this have to be looking at how you do help the traditional media?

I don't know yet. Probably. I made the comment as a highly theoretical point to stress that we are not in the business of providing bailouts or encouraging bailouts to particular companies or industries, so we have to look at it from a different perspective. We have to look at it in terms of setting out the basic goals and principles for communities, citizens and democracy.

And of course, when you do that you naturally end up considering policies that have a direct effect on real-life companies living and breathing at that point. So, of course what we are looking at doing could affect current media players.

Is there a reason to have a cross-ownership rule when arguably combining a newspaper and a TV station is like multiplatform 101 in a world that is already at media 3.0?

I think that is one of the key questions that the ownership proceeding is going to look at. Clearly some of the reasons about consolidation are still valid. But it is also true that the barriers of entry for new media competitors are much lower than they were, and that has to be a factor.

Can we establish that this initiative will not be a stealth takeover of the media by the government?

Yes, we can absolutely, definitively say that we have no plans to take over the media, and we have no plans to reinstitute the fairness doctrine while I am at it.

I believe that a lot of the problems that face the media world are going to be solved through innovation by both the commercial and nonprofit sectors.

That is clearly the focus of our thinking.

You have talked about the open Internet being directly connected to the future of the news media. Do you think network neutrality rules are necessary to the future of journalism?

Yes, but let me state it in a slightly more abstract way. Having an open Internet absolutely is important to the future of journalism, because if we don't it will check off the innovation that is providing a lot of the best future prospects for journalism.

Suddenly a lot of the exciting innovations that may be part of the future media landscape could wither. I am not saying citizen journalism is going to be the answer to all problems, but there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on now among former newspaper journalists, citizen journalists, and local groups. And if they don't have the ability to get traction in an organic way and find their audience, it is hard to see how this wave of innovation in the last year or so would continue with the same force.

You talked about broadcasting, are you talking to cable operators?

We will be talking to cable operators. On a micro level, we will take a look at the whole [public, educational and government] PEG channel regime and how that has worked or not worked over the years.

How did you get this job?

I was talking with Julius Genachowski around the time he was being considered for the FCC chair and he knew that the fate of local news and information was a very important topic to me. We hit on the idea of having the FCC take a really holistic look at it.

I was at the time the president and editor of Beliefnet.com, the Website that I founded. So it was a major decision for me to make the leap, but it struck me as a hugely important task, and challenge and moment.

The chairman said you had unique qualifications for this job. What are they?

I split my career between being a mainstream media journalist, I was national correspondent for Newsweek and national editor at U.S. News, then went off and founded Beliefnet, so I have both a deep appreciation of the traditional journalistic trade and an appreciation and excitement about new media and how it can really revolutionize information and journalism.

To the extent there are sometimes two poles here, people who think that all of new media is people in their pajamas or all of old media is an antiquated dinosaur, I don't believe either of those points.

I think we need a world with a robust number of full-time, professional journalists, and we also need to recognize the new media developments are in some ways not only as good as, but better than traditional media. And at this point we have to be conscious of how dramatically the media world is changing and have our eyes open to possible policy implications and not simply be passive bystanders and just hope that it all works out in the public interest.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com, and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

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