I was a panelist yesterday, Wednesday, April 15, at First Amendment Day at Iowa State University. Dr. Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State, opened with remarks that I recommend reading first. My response follows (I ad-libbed a few lines, but mostly followed this prepared text):
I’ll start with a couple requests. If you have a cell phone, please get it out and hold it up. Now, if you have used that phone today to send or receive written communication or images, whether by text message, email or web, please open or activate your phone so that the screen lights up. Now wave that phone and look around you. (Nearly everyone in the crowd, mostly students, waved a glowing phone.)
This is the future of freedom of the press. It is healthy, it is thriving and it will not be stopped, even if the companies that own printing presses can’t find their way to a prosperous future. The light of freedom shines as bright as those lights we see throughout this auditorium.
My parents taught me to be a polite guest, so part of me wants to thank Dr. Bugeja for his hospitality and to nod politely at his remarks. But a panel discussion without disagreement would be dull indeed, so I will be a polite guest and help my host present a lively discussion by disagreeing with nearly everything he just said.
Google is not the devil, the Internet is not hell and neither one is a threat to freedom of the press.
Print is far from dead, but if newspapers die because we failed to develop a new business model, I am confident that our First Amendment freedoms will carry on in digital communication.
Two years ago this month, I was in Germany and visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. If you love newspapers and love freedom of the press and if you ever visit Germany, you need to visit this museum and see the birthplace of the press and the history of printing. It was an emotional experience to see those artifacts from the early days of printing. I especially remember my feeling of reverence in a nearly dark room where three original Gutenberg Bibles were displayed under protective glass.
More than three centuries after Gutenberg printed those Bibles, this nation’s founders decided to guarantee freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution. They didn’t guarantee healthy profit margins to newspapers, just the right to publish.
This freedom was promised in an era when newspapers served small niche audiences such as a political party or an ethnic community with a mix of news and strong opinion. Many newspapers were one-person shops that scraped out a meager living for that person. If that sounds a lot like today’s bloggers and niche sites, then maybe you can see why I feel like the First Amendment remains strong.
I do love newspapers. I broke into this business late in the First Amendment’s second century when I started delivering the Columbus Citizen-Journal in 1967 in Ohio. That newspaper stopped publishing in 1985. My first journalism job was for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1971. The Sentinel stopped publishing in the 1990s. Ken Fuson and I were present for the death of the Des Moines Tribune in 1982. I was an editor for the Kansas City Times when it published its final edition in 1990. Every one of those papers died before Google was born and before the World Wide Web was more than a novelty. Newspaper circulation peaked in 1993, the year Larry Page and Sergey Brin turned 20 and five years before they founded Google. So let’s not blame digital competition for upheaval in the newspaper business. We were killing each other off and failing to innovate long before competitors started figuring out the secrets of success in the digital marketplace.
As a paper carrier, reporter, editor and writing coach, I have worked for eight different newspapers. Not a single one of them really charged for content. The price you pay for a newspaper, whether it’s delivered daily to your home or whether you pick one up occasionally at the grocery store, barely covers the costs of production and distribution, if that. We always made our money by assembling a large audience and helping businesses connect with the audience.
I remember the early days of the Web. Newspaper executives by and large regarded it with disdain. They neither recognized nor sought to develop this new medium’s potential for helping us revolutionize our core jobs of informing our communities and connecting businesses with consumers.
Too many newspaper executives ignored these new opportunities for too long. The more progressive ones tried to cram existing products into this new space, rather than exploring the possibilities of this opportunity. Our advertising fit as awkwardly into the new medium as our content did, and we left it to Brin and Page and Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Bezos and Craig Newmark and Josh Marshall and Arianna Huffington and a lot of other people to figure out how commerce and journalism would work in the digital marketplace.
When newspaper executives should have been working, risking and thinking differently to develop new ways of telling stories and new ways of sharing information and new ways of serving business customers, their primary concern about the Internet was that staff members might spend some valuable work time looking at pornography.
Don’t get me wrong. I mourn the passing of each newspaper that dies. A final edition of the Rocky Mountain News hangs in my office. And I plan to fight like hell to ensure that The Gazette continues publishing for years to come.
But I don’t fear that Google or the Internet threaten our First Amendment freedoms. The greatest threats to freedom of the press are Americans who don’t understand the First Amendment or politicians who do understand it.
When I hear people talk about how the Internet or newspaper failures threaten freedom of the press, I think about the New York Times and Talking Points Memo. In 2002, the New York Times had a net income of $300 million after taxes. That year it also published lots of page-one stories that contained outright lies that helped push this nation along the path to a war that has cost us thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. I should add that the Associated Press and Washington Post published similar lies. Only the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder, which no longer exists, performed the watchdog role for which we cherish our press freedom. And that was right after the dot-com bust, when newspaper publishers were heaving sighs of relief, thinking that this Internet thing might actually be a fad, not a threat to the First Amendment.
When the Internet proved more durable, newspaper companies still stumbled and bumbled in their efforts to innovate, while others took the lead in finding our digital future. Do you remember the scandal that brought down Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? That was the result of a classic piece of investigative reporting. It could have been the work of the New York Times, redoubling its watchdog efforts to atone for its shameful reporting on prewar intelligence. That could have been the work of the Associated Press, which has a nationwide news-gathering network, with reporters in each of the states where U.S. attorneys were being fired.
But finding the pattern for those firings was actually the work of Talking Points Memo, an independent blog. Working with their audience in one of the first and best examples of journalistic crowdsourcing, Josh Marshall and his small TPM staff pieced together the disparate reports about scattered U.S. attorneys being fired. They blew the whistle on the efforts by Gonzales and the White House to use the Justice Department for political ends. Those digital journalists launched the scandal that eventually attracted the attention of the supposed giants of the free press. There was, Dr. Bugeja, enough “there” there to force the attorney general of the United States to resign. TPM’s reporting on this story had substantially more “there” than all the New York Times reporting on weapons of mass destruction.
I am pleased that many newspaper companies are now, better late than never, understanding the needs of innovation and the opportunities of the digital age. In fact, it was the Detroit Free Press that toppled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick through some more outstanding watchdog reporting of the digital age, including obtaining copies of the mayor’s text messages.
The truth is that Google, bloggers and other Internet news sources, whether they aggregate or originate, are exercising freedom of the press, even if they own servers, rather than a printing press. And the Associated Press and newspapers will not protect the First Amendment or their business by using the courts (an arm of the government) to attack the fair-use doctrine, a principle based in press freedom. We won’t protect the First Amendment by finding a way to charge Google or direct customers for Internet content. Those are strictly business matters.
Remember that darkened room I told you about in the Gutenberg Museum, where I saw three original Gutenberg Bibles? Off to the left, in another case, were even older Bibles, handmade by monks in the centuries before Gutenberg developed movable type. They were beautiful works of art, passed from generation to generation as family treasures.
I think newspapers today are living in a similar time to those monks in the time of Gutenberg. If their product was that beautiful handcrafted book, then its days were numbered. But if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology was going to take that message to untold millions who never had a chance to own one of those precious heirloom Bibles.
We face the same situation. If freedom of the press rests in the machine or in its product, ink on paper, delivered to your home daily full of yesterday’s news, then maybe we are in a dire situation. But freedom of the press is not a reference to a machine or a product. Freedom of the press is freedom of watchdog reporting, of storytelling and opinion. It’s freedom to bring insight and meaning and truth to our communities. Just as Gutenberg’s new machine gave new life to the Scriptures, I believe Google and those machines you waved a few minutes ago will give new life to freedom of the press.
After we delivered our opening remarks, three other panelists spoke and then Dr. Bugeja and I discussed these and other issues with the panelists and the audience. He followed up today by email and asked me to pass this along as I posted our exchange: While you may disagree with all that I wrote in the opening statement, I agree with almost everything that you said. The issue here is more complex than I can make in 10 minutes and that took years of research in Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age.