WGAE: Net As Primary News Source Threatens Quality, Jobs

Makes statement in letter to FTC

The Writers Guild of America East tell the Federal Trade Commission that it is increasingly difficult to create "reliable, informative material in the fact of unrelenting budget cuts," and that the government may need to better fund public media or otherwise protect newsgathering while the country figures out how much it is willing to pay for quality programming.

That was as preamble to the union's planned participation in FTC workshops in early December on the impact of new media on journalism and the financial problems the industry faces.

The union says the Internet can potentially provide huge amounts of quality journalism, but not under the current model and, perhaps, not without government aid in the near term.

In comments filed Friday, WGAE, which counts news writers among its membership, said that while new digital media can expand the public dialog, it can't cover all the bases. "[I]ts economic structure is insufficient to support the in-depth investigation and reporting the public needs in order to participate in a meaningful way."

The union argues that while ad revenue declines are one issue, but the more fundamental change, a change that is driving that ad decline, is that with so many more, and more portable, sources of news, it has become more difficult to tie a revenue model to any particular outlet, and reducing their ability to control their material, compressing news to fit shorter attention spans and ratcheting up the pressure to be first.

"Writers have less and less time to think, ask questions, and write. There are fewer levels of editorial oversight, fewer checks and balances to ensure accuracy, and fewer opportunities to exercise editorial judgment," says the group.

While it concedes this can make the job more interesting and efficient, it also says it makes the workloads "nearly unbearable" and multiplies the risks of error.

Bottom line, they say, the problem is that the rise of the Internet as a primary source has "undermined quality and reliability, and has made it increasingly difficult to forge a meaningful career creating thoughtful, accurate material."

But they also say the trend can be reversed and that the Internet can enhance public dialog. But only if everyone has ready access to high-speed broadband connections and information flows freely.

It also requires money in the form of sufficient resources to do the kind of thoughtful analysis and reporting that takes the Internet beyond "witless gossip, unfounded rumor, narrow propaganda, and salacious nonsense."

Without sufficient investment, the latter, which is cheap, will drown out the former, they say.

"As long as revenues - indeed, survival - are tied to getting material up on the Web as quickly as possible and making that material as superficially appealing as possible, news quality will remain caught in a powerful downdraft," they say.

The union says it is confident quality will prevail, but that in the interim, the government may have to step in to bridge the gap between the old model and the new.

"Most content is now free so the market does not require people to make that choice. It would be bad public policy to allow the current newsgathering system to fail in the interim. It would be very difficult to rebuild the industry from scratch; professional journalism might not make it through the transition period."

Both the FTC and FCC are examining the future of journalism in the face of declining circulation for newspapers and magazines and falling ad revenues for broadcast outlets, all facing an information tsunami, much of it free, from the Internet.

The FCC this week named journalist Seven Waldman to spearhead a commission assessment of the state of the media. Waldman told the L.A. Times this week that he was most worried about "the evaporation of journalism and shrinking of journalistic resources."