10 things the US government can do to help digital news entrepreneurs

The US Federal Communications Commission last week released its long-awaited report on the future of local news in the Internet era, “The Information Needs of Communities,” to a collective “meh” from the digital news commentariat. At best, the report seems to have met or at least exceeded the low expectations that many critics had for it. There’s no ill-advised proposal for getting government into the news business, thank goodness, and the report shows a commission that tried to do its homework in analyzing what’s been happening in the local news marketplace over the past decade.

But let’s not dismiss too quickly the federal government’s potential role in promoting good news coverage. Here are 10 steps that the US government *could* take that would significantly help entrepreneurs trying expand the news coverage of their local communities. And none of them involve direct subsidies or payments to the news industry.

1. Protect Net Neutrality

The Internet has nearly eliminated the barriers to entry for start-up publishers, enabling the explosion of new information sources across the Internet. If we need better sources of local information, the solution is not to allow telecom companies to extract tolls and demand payments from publishers to allow access from readers. That will merely reduce the number of voices available to consumers while further enriching telcos. Corporate media was cutting local news coverage before the Internet. Silencing websites won’t bring back that coverage. It will only reduce the possibility of finding replacements.

2. Expand broadband coverage

The smaller the market, the harder it becomes for a local publication to earn the income it needs to operate as a viable business. The digital divide makes small communities even smaller. Universal access to broadband would make every household part of its local digital marketplace, expanding opportunities for publishers and helping increase the possibility that a professional, responsible news publication in that community could be a financial success. The government can help expand broadband coverage not by caving to the demands of telecos (who are holding broadband expansion hostage to kill net neutrality, for example), but by laying its own fiber lines, establishing public WiFi networks, and by demanding more from companies bidding for broadcast spectrum.

3. Digitize public records and put them online in open formats

You might have noticed that we have millions of un- and underemployed workers in America today, many with digital skills. We also have decades of public records that remain available only in printed form, or in archaic electronic formats. Why not create a WPA-style computer workforce to digitize the nation’s public records and to publish them online, in open formats? Not only would this effort put many thousands of Americans to work, it would create a repository of more easily retrievable public information, allowing citizens (and reporters) easier access to our government.

4. Pass a national shield law, with explicit protection for online publishers

The First Amendment belongs to everyone, not just to print and broadcast reporters. Unfortunately, the shield laws that provide legislative support to the First Amendment vary from state to state, and some courts are unwilling to apply their protections to anyone other than old-school print and broadcast reporters. A federal shield law, with an explicit protection for online publishers, could help create a more hospitable legal environment for start-up news publishers.

5. Regulate transaction fees

Like many retailers, I lose a chunk of every payment made by my customers who use debit and credit cards. While it’s reasonable to expect to pay a bit for the convenience of these forms of payment, given the small number of megabanks that now control the credit card industry, we need government oversight to keep fees reasonable. Congress is taking steps to help this happen, which will reduce operating costs for all small businesses, including start-up news publishers.

6. Revisit COPPA

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act sounds like a worthy piece of legislation – no online service can collect personal information from someone under age 13 without that the explicit consent of that child’s parent or guardian (and an email or Web form consent doesn’t count). In practice today, however this act is violated so often as to make the drinking age look like a widely respected law. And it’s not the publishers undermining the law. It’s the kids. Many online community publishers spend way too much time finding and deleting user accounts from kids who lied about their age to register on a website. Creating digital media has become a normal part of life for kids under 13. It’s time to revisit this law and create a new solution that protects kids, parents and publishers. The law should mean something. When this many people violate it, the law is reduced to charade and farce.

7. Ditch the FTC’s “blogger endorsement” rule

This attempt to force truth in advertising is a confusing mess and its inconsistent enforcement has become a joke. If payola disclosure’s important, let Congress pass a law mandating it for everyone – bloggers, newspaper reporters, celebrities and anyone else who publishes. But good online publishers shouldn’t have to worry themselves with jumping through legal hoops that less considerate people get away with ignoring.

8. Model zoning reform

Continuing on the topic of widely ignored laws, zoning laws in many communities make running a business from your home (even a remotely hosted website) illegal. With telecommunity becoming more popular, the lines dividing home from work are becoming more blurred. While zoning remains a local issue, the federal government could encourage local communities to revisit their zoning regulations to encourage the development of online businesses. The first step would be to eliminate restrictions against running from one’s home office a business that employs no one from outside the family on site.

9. Remove payroll tax cap and reduce rate

My last two recommendations would help create a more viable environment for all job creation, not just in online news. Too many digital entrepreneurs are caught by surprise their first year, when they’re hit with the bill for the “self employment tax” – the share of Medicare and Social Security taxes typically paid by employers. When you’re self-employed, you’re on the hook for that share, as well as your regular share as an “employee.”

These so-called payroll taxes are regressive, as they are charged only on the first $106,800 of income. Eliminating the cap would raise additional money to fund these programs, potentially allowing an overall reduction in the payroll tax rate. That would reduce the self-employment tax, making digital entrepreneurship more attraction to journalists thinking about starting up, just trying to make a middle-class income for themselves and their family.

10. National health care

Even more than payroll taxes, the biggest non-income expense for many start-up businesses is health care. I personally know many journalists who’ve stuck with unsatisfying newsroom jobs rather than starting out on their own because of the health benefits. Ever-increasing health insurance premiums effectively serve as a private industry “tax” on job creation in the United States. A national health care plan that divorces health insurance from employment would encourage people and businesses to create jobs by eliminating health insurance as a direct expense of creating (or maintaining) a job. At the very least, opening Medicare to all who wanted to enroll and pay the premiums would create some much needed competition for companies such as Wellpoint, which enjoy near-monopolies in many communities on health policies for the self-employed.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Well said. Especially about Net Neutrality, this is something that I believe is essential. I am American born but live in the UK. This interests me as when the US sneezes, the UK gets a cold. Thanks for this…

  2. says:

    Thanks for an excellent piece. I hope the government gets to see this and will act on it! I would add one thing to the list: The government should enact a new Works Progress Administration so that writers and other creative types can find work. Journalism work is very scarce in this economy, especially for those of us who need to telecommute. It’s just not feasible for most of us to relocate to the few places where there actually are jobs.