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Freepress.net and the future of media

By: 14 May 2010 One Comment

The members of Free Press and one of that organization’s projects, Save the News, have asked the same question that a lot of us have – what is in store for journalism’s future?

Josh Stearns, program manager for Free Press and Save the News, said he’s not sure what the answer to that question is. However, he said his group wants to be involved in helping determine what media will look like in the future.

Free Press, Stearns said, was born in 2002 and 2003 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was considering eliminating – or at least radically altering – its ownership laws so that large media companies were free to buy out other outlets and grow larger. Free Press and its members were concerned about the local impact such a move might have on local media and competition among media outlets.

He said Free Press got organized and, before long, suggested rule changes allowing for increased ownership shares in local media markets got hung up in the courts. Since then, Free Press has been the leading media advocacy group in the nation – it’s 500,000 members strong and Stearns said the group strives to impact policy changes that impact the media.

“What we try to do is be a voice for the people in Washington, D.C.,” Stearns said. “We keep an eye on what the government is doing and let people know how to make their voices heard.”

A major concern, he said, is the growth of media conglomerates and reduced competition in local markets. We’ve seen some of that in Arkansas, certainly. Prior to 1992, the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette were both statewide and competed for readers throughout the Natural State.

Today, the only statewide newspaper is the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — formed after the publications merged. In northwest Arkansas, the Benton County Daily Record, Democrat-Gazette, the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas Times once competed for readers. Now, those papers cooperate and share resources under a single company, Northwest Arkansas Newspapers, LLC.

Stearns said a lot of the mergers, buy-outs and operating agreements common in media today are driven by economic necessity – the model that sustained newspapers for years isn’t working. A new model must emerge, Stearns said, adding he’s as curious as other observers and insiders as to what that model might be.

Of particular concern, he said, is the attempt to influence government to simply put policies in place that reinforce the model that’s failing. Over the past decade, Stearns said the press in general and newspapers in particular have been plagued by massive lay-offs. Gutted newsrooms, he said, are ill equipped to engage in the in-depth, investigative reporting that keeps the public informed of what the government, corporations and other organizations are doing.

The lack of available resources, Stearns said, often gives rise to “photocopy journalism” – merely accepting press releases and other bits and pieces of information from interested parties and running those items as news. The lack of revenue not only shrinks newsrooms – Stearns said it also compels media outlets to partner with each other, thus limiting competition further. A newspaper, for example, might partner with a television station and share information rather than competing with each other for news items.

Stearns said the Internet factors heavily into any discussion of the future of journalism. Traditional outlets are losing subscribers while Internet news sites are growing in popularity. The problem, of course, is how can news be delivered through the Internet profitably? Furthermore, where do traditional media outlets factor into the conversation?

Stearns pointed out that his group is interested in both an independent press and a competitive one – the more strong outlets, the better off the public is. To that end, Stearns said it’s essential for people to keep an open mind about funding sources as well as policies that might discourage new media outlets from growing and competing with the traditional press.

When it comes to funding sources, Stearns said there has been a lot of discussion about a publicly-funded model as opposed to the press deriving revenue from commercial sources such as advertising. He said it may well be that there’s room for a little bit of both models.

“It’s not an all or nothing thing for us,” Stearns said, adding that some public support doesn’t mean the press should concentrate on getting away from commercial funding. “We just consider (public funding) as one potential part of many pieces of a solution.”

When it comes to funding, Stearns said a lot of questions must be answered. If we’re talking about more public funding, how can the media be sufficiently insulated from government influence? Also, how much influence do advertisers really have on editorial content?

As for public policies, Stearns said it’s essential that “new media entrepreneurs” are given the same status and access as their counterparts in more traditional outlets. Allowing a newspaper access to, say, state government offices while excluding internet publications could run counter to the goal of keeping the public informed.

Ultimately, Stearns said it’s important to figure out how to retain an unbiased, vibrant press in the United States and make sure its members can make a living by keeping the public informed. He said journalists are trained to be objective, but encourages them to get involved in the discussion of what the media should like like in the years to come.

“We need journalists to be watchdogs on the future of journalism as well as other things,” Stearns said. “Journalists can’t be objective about their right to exist.”

Editors note: This is the first part of what will be a regular series here at First Arkansas News. The second part of the interview with Stearns will be posted in the next day or two and we should have some interviews with media industry officials in Arkansas before long, too. Stay tuned!

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

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