In (Partial) Defense of Connie Schultz

Jeff Jarvis’s low lob

Like Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz, I am sincerely worried about the future, as the revenue streams dry up and along with it, support for in depth, investigative, and accountability journalism by newspapers.

I’m also not a fan of the solution she outlined to protect newspaper profits in her June 28 column. It’s unworkable, illogical, and unnecessarily legalistic.

But so is Jeff Jarvis’s claim, part of his somewhat nasty rebuke to Schultz, that the columnist, who is married to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, must register as a lobbyist now that she’s advocating that copyright law be modified. Her column proposed making changes in the law mandating that:

1) Aggregators would reimburse newspapers for ad revenues associated with their news reports.

2) Injunctions would bar aggregators’ profiting from newspapers’ content for the first 24 hours after stories are posted.

The column doesn’t do a great job of defining terms, but in a comment left at Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog, she elaborated a bit, saying that she’d only like to quarantine “work product” or “significant rewrites or summaries” so extensive that readers “lose any interest in going to the original stories.”

To put it gently, I don’t think this would work. Maybe, just maybe, a thousand courts could sort out how significant or not a rewrite would have to be to fall under suspicion. (And even then, what’s to stop an enterprising aggregator from hosting their servers beyond the reach of U.S. copyright law?)

Even before online copy and paste, hot information was never controlled by the publishing newspaper. If you dial in news radio or any television channel, you’ll get plenty of news spots that are simple rewrites of information gained through the hard work and expense of newspapers and their reporters. Undoubtedly some news consumers have decided these chewed-over summaries, even if they didn’t have all the information the paper originally presented, are all the news they needed. Some undoubtedly lost interest in paying for a newspaper subscription as a result.

But who complained? No one, because the idea that you ought to try to keep others from repeating information was, well, crazy, even if in the course of repeating that information, the relayer makes a buck or two. Imagine if, after The New York Times reported in December, 2005 that the United States was engaging in a massive international wiretapping program without court oversight, that other profit driven news organizations, or aggregating websites for that matter, would have been prohibited from summarizing the report’s findings for twenty-four hours?

Jarvis disagrees with Schultz’s proscription for many of the same reasons as me. But the CUNY professor and new media guru is not content to skewer the proposal, and instead reads far too deeply into her column’s closing, finding an ember to fan into flame. Here’s the key quote from Schultz that has Jarvis upset:

Newspaper owners, publishers and journalists across the country — and that includes everyone from the NAA to the Society of Professional Journalists to The Newspaper Guild—must do the previously unthinkable: organize and then lobby the same elected body we are duty-bound to cover.

In taking our cause to Congress, we should borrow from the strategy of successful political campaigns: Agree on message, sum it up with a catchy phrase—”No Free Ride” maybe?—and then pound the drumbeat for change.

I implore fellow columnists to add their voices to the chorus and nudge not only elected leaders but also leaders in our own companies. Plain Dealer Publisher Terry Egger backs the Marburger plan. Other news organizations should join him, including Advance Communications, which owns The Plain Dealer and 25 others.

Enter Jarvis’s dudgeon:

First note well that Schultz is married to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown as she calls on her newspapers and employer (my former employer, Advance Publications) and fellow columnists to influence Congress to remake copyright. She should be registered as a lobbyist. No joke.

Translation: Nanny-nanny boo-boo!

Admittedly there are minefields a plenty when a journalist is close to (in this case, married to) a politician who has the power to affect the issues they cover.

And one could make an intellectually defensible—though far too harsh—argument that Schultz or any other journalist in a similar position should hang up their spurs, or perhaps stop writing about any political issues, whatever that might mean. And if that’s what Jarvis had argued, I wouldn’t be spending my time or my words on this teapot sized tempest.

But just because Connie Schultz, who in all her years as a columnist and journalist never covered or interviewed Sherrod Brown, has a proposal to save the newspaper industry—one that she feels so strongly about that she’d like other media professionals to push Congress to adopt it—doesn’t mean that she’s all of a sudden a lobbyist.

If steelworkers write letters to the editor advocating a tariff, or even if the steelworkers book a bus from their union local to Washington and have a few meetings with their representatives, they don’t suddenly become lobbyists. (And while our current lobbying laws are far from ideal, technically, you only have to register as a lobbyist if you are being paid to lobby and you spend more than 20% of your time doing so—hard to see how Schultz is going to fall into that category.)

Some of these points have been raised in the comments thread following Jarvis’s post. And defending himself there, Jarvis implies that he only intends the all-citizens-who-advocate-a-policy-must-register-as-lobbyists rule to apply to those with a “personal relationship with a member of congress.”

So, to every political spouse or friend of a politician who’s ever publicly expressed a view on a policy area (early childhood education, AIDS funding, guns, whatever) best get those registration forms in order!

Jarvis’s complaint seems like a too-clever debater’s parry, one that when held to the light is rather thin. Schultz’s proposal is weak too. But at least it was offered in good faith.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.