Why Digital Journalists Need to be Policy Wonks

For the first time, the Online News Association has dedicated a session at their conference to digital journalism and media policy. I’ll be moderating the session on Saturday morning with Alex Howard (@digiphile), Government 2.0 Correspondent, O’Reilly Media, Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor), Director, Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, and Liz Lebron (@lizlebron1), who is getting her PhD at Louisiana State University. In the end, this session is not so much about policy, but rather about the work of digital journalists today and the political issues that could foster or inhibit that work.

For a long time the firewall between the business side and the news side of media companies was seen as a critical part of journalists’ independence. However, as journalism transitions from a corporate culture to a start-up culture we’ve embraced “entrepreneurial journalism.” It has become commonplace to say that journalists need to know how to run a newsroom and how to run a business.

I would argue that as the landscape of news and technology changes journalists also need to have their finger on the pulse of public policy. Right now, media policy and digital rights debates are happening in Washington, DC, that could have huge implications on press freedom, innovation and new models for news.

Journalists have a long history of weighing in on policies that will have clear bearing on the field. Few journalists hesitate to weigh-in on First Amendment cases, Freedom of Information issues, Shield laws, and Anti-SLAPP laws that protect journalists from frivolous lawsuits meant to silence a source or squash a story.

At the same time, media owners have never been shy about using their money and influence in Washington, DC, to shape media policies in the best interest of their companies. Take two examples from OpenSecrets: News Corp, owners of Fox networks, has spent 1 million in campaign contributions in 2012 and 10 million in lobbying in the last two years. Comcast, owners of NBC networks, has spent over 4 million in campaign contributions in 2012 and 30 million in lobbying in the last two years (much of which was spent to win approval for their purchase of NBC). Notably, what might be good for journalism and the public isn’t always the same thing as what is good for the media company.

But in the digital age, threats to journalism come in many shapes and sizes. The last year has proven this again and again:

  • The online piracy bill commonly known as SOPA catalyzed journalists to call on Congress to oppose the bill because it could have given broad powers to the government to take down web content and interfere with websites.
  • When the Federal Communications Commission moved to bring more transparency to political ad spending on broadcast TV, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio Television Digital News Association tried to stop them. Only a few journalism groups stood up to support the issue.
  • Just as nonprofit journalism began to take root the IRS put a hold on new nonprofit applications from journalism organizations, threatening to undermine the growth of this sector.
  • In the face of overwhelming public support for public broadcasting some in Congress continued to take aim at NPR and PBS, threatening all funding and succeeding in stripping out important funds for digital media and equipment.

But this is just a snapshot of the media policy landscape which also includes critical questions about whistleblower protections, journalist’s right to record in public places, the future of net neutrality on mobile devices and surveillance, privacy and data mining that risk sources and stories. Each of the panelists will bring their own issues to the table as well.

This is not a question of whether the government should get involved in journalism, they already are. Media policy made today will shape the future of journalism tomorrow. Right now more than ever we need forward looking digital journalists who understand the web to engage in those debates, to inform those decisions, and to make sure that media policy isn’t made in a vacuum.

Correction: I had originally listed Liz Lebron as a former broadcast journalist. She has had a ten year career in PR and marketing before her graduate work on media policy.

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