Accountability in the post-newspaper age

Here is the video of Princeton University professor Paul Starr at last night’s program on “Public Accountability After the Age of Newspapers,” featuring Starr, Boston Globe editor Marty Baron and me. Update: Video of the entire program has been posted here.

The event was sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service and the Ford Hall Forum, and was held at Suffolk Law School. The moderator was law school professor Alasdair Roberts.

As you will see, one of Starr’s main themes was that, with the Internet having hollowed out the economic model for the newspaper business, government needs to step up with some type of subsidy — preferably an indirect subsidy created by tweaking the tax code, for instance. (Here is Starr’s recent congressional testimony on that subject.)

Before you start spluttering, Starr would not favor newspapers over other forms of media. And he pointed out that he’s not talking about anything new: Newspapers as we have come to know them got a huge assist in the earliest days of the republic through massive postal subsidies.

“Newspapers … have helped to create a self-aware urban public,” Starr said.

Baron disdained subsidies, saying, “I feel very strongly about our independence, and we have to maintain that.”

Instead, Baron suggested two governmental changes — a shift in the copyright law aimed at extracting money out of Google News and other aggregators, and an end to what he called the “antiquated” cross-ownership ban, which prevents media companies from owning a daily newspapers and a television or radio station in the same market.

Starr disagreed with Baron on copyright, noting that if linking without permission were made illegal (an extreme remedy that Baron did not actually suggest), the Web as we know it would soon cease to exist.

(Personally, I think the fair-use provision of copyright provides all the protection that newspapers need. If Globe executives want to opt out of Google, all they have to do is insert some code. They don’t for the simple reason that Google provides the Globe and other newspapers with a considerable amount of Web traffic.)

I talked about emerging alternative models at the local level, such as the New Haven Independent, CT News Junkie, Baristanet.com and the Batavian — projects that are too small to replicate the newspaper’s traditional mission in its entirety, but that have established themselves as vital news sources in a time of cutbacks.

10 thoughts on “Accountability in the post-newspaper age

  1. mike_b1

    I am not sure to what Baron refers when he calls for an end to the cross-ownership ban.

    I can think of lots — lots! –of examples where not only a media company owns a daily paper and a tv station and a radio station in the same market, but actually owns the dominant entities in each segment in that market.

    There may be a law against it, but it’s not enforced.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Mike: Every one of those examples was grandfathered in. In Boston, the Herald has wanted a radio station for years, but can’t have one. I’m sure the Globe wants to partner with a TV station more closely than it’s allowed to do.

  2. Treg

    I can’t help thinking that Dan Kennedy has thought through some of these issues a lot more carefully than Marty Baron has.

    Google is hurting you – riiiiiiiiiight.

  3. Treg

    And there’s a reason for those quaint little “antiquated” laws on cross-ownership. Wouldn’t it have been lovely if Murdoch could have had the Herald, Fox 25, AND a radio station all in the same market.

  4. Peter Porcupine

    DK – By all means, bring back the ‘postal subsidy’. A Kindle in every pot!

    Media already struggles with its ‘lapdog’ status in the eyes of a little under 50% of the electorate as control of the government sways back and forth. Progressives decried the favorable treatment of Bush/Cheney, conservatives snort at the obeisance paid to Barack and Michelle.

    Tax breaks and subsidies of newspapers – which would be definition be the largesse of the faction in power – would well and truly end the perception of accountability.

  5. Mike Deehan

    Excellent panel. I’m glad Marty was there for the “in the trenches” POV. The more I transition from new media student to working journalist, the more I agree with the gray-hairs.

    I’m glad the webcast and archive are popular!

  6. lkcape

    I’m not sure that you would complain too loudly if George Soros was in charge of The Herald, Fox 25 and a radio station all in same market.

    I suspect that you would view their “quaintness” slightly differently.

  7. lkcape, I would be equally horrified if Soros or Murdoch had the ability to control multiple media outlets like that.

    Haven’t the last fifty years proven time and time again that media consolidation never actually saves money? It only dilutes the quality of the product?!?

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