I was recently in the office of a well-respected Member of Congress, trying to help him understand issues of importance to the news industry – including media cross-ownership, IP protection and the roles played by Google and Facebook. One of the first things he said was, “How come I don’t hear from your members? I rarely meet with anyone from the National Association of Broadcasters, but the TV and radio station managers in my district call me all the time. How come I never hear directly from the publishers in my district?”
It was a kind of startling way to start the conversation but the underlying message had deep meaning: “You have power but you don’t use it.”
What is even more startling is that newspapers are still one of the few places left that almost every candidate for office or representative or senator in the United States Congress visits to talk to the editorial board. They come to your newspaper and yet we still have a disconnect between the issues of importance to the industry and awareness by your representatives in Congress.
I am sure there are rational historic reasons for this. Unlike broadcasters, newspapers aren’t directly regulated by the federal government and, therefore, have had relatively fewer federal issues of concern. The same was true of the underlying businesses – namely local advertising, printing and distribution. There was likely also a desire to avoid any possible impression that issues of concern to the business side of the house might affect editorial judgments.
Whatever the reasons, the time for reticence is long past. This is not a time when we can sit back and expect policymakers to naturally understand what we need to sustain this industry into the future. In a digital world, even the most local news is distributed through global platforms – and almost every aspect of the business (e.g. advertising, distribution, content protection) is impacted by policy choices at the federal level. The future of the industry will be determined by the people we send to Congress and put in the White House, and we need to use every tool at our disposal to ensure that those people understand our issues.
We work very hard here in Washington to make sure your voices are heard. But we need your help to make sure representatives hear the same thing back home.
Therefore, I am going to ask every publisher in our membership to take advantage of federal policymaker visits to your editorial boards by taking ten minutes to introduce yourself and convey a few key messages about important federal policies that will impact your business. It could be as simple as the following:
“This news business is vitally important to the future of our community. If we didn’t do what we do, people simply wouldn’t have access to good information about what is happening here and what you hope to accomplish in Washington. The void would instead be filled with absolutely “fake news”: patently false information designed to incite hatred and division. Unfortunately, this business is also very stressed financially. Our audience is bigger than ever but technological change means it is very difficult sustain investments in the kind of quality journalism we are known for. As an elected representative, you can’t fix all of that – and we wouldn’t ask you to. What we would ask is that you make sure that the federal government isn’t making the business any harder than it has to be.
We need (i) tax reform that maintains the ability to deduct advertising expenses, (ii) protection for our intellectual property, (iii) an end to the outdated cross-ownership ban, and (iv) a safe harbor that would allow the industry to negotiate with Google and Facebook as a group. It’s not a long list when compared with many other industries – but it’s an important one that means everything to the future of this news business.”
Adjust or modify as you see fit but please take the opportunities to make your voices heard. As we move forward, our public policy team will send out an alert before each Congressional recess to remind you of the key issues that we are working on in Washington so that you will be prepared to have these conversations with policymakers when the opportunity arises.
David Chavern is former President & CEO of the News/Media Alliance. Chavern has 30 years of experience in executive strategic and operational roles. Prior to the Alliance, he completed a decade-long tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.