Julius Genachowski’s four years as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission had a little something for everyone. There was rapid expansion of broadband access, both wired and wireless, but his net-neutrality rules were blasted by open-Internet advocates as feckless (and Verizon is suing to overturn them). He blocked the AT&T-T-Mobile merger, but allowed the Comcast-NBC deal to go through. He pushed to relax the longstanding ban on companies owning a newspaper and a TV outlet in the same market (a decision is pending), then forced local TV stations to put their political-ad data online. Genachowski—a former CJR intern during his undergrad days at Columbia College—announced in March that he was leaving the FCC, but by mid-April hadn’t said when. CJR’s Michael Meyer spoke to Genachowski in April, just days before he announced that, when he does leave, he’s headed to the Aspen Institute as a senior fellow to advise on communications policy.
An important part of your tenure was the 2011 Information Needs of Communities Report. What was the genesis of that?
Promoting a vibrant ecosystem for news and information has historically been an area of interest for the FCC. I believed we needed to look at those issues with the same spirit that we looked at the larger economic and social issues affected by broadband: a comprehensive, dispassionate, future-oriented look at the opportunities and challenges that information technologies were presenting for news and information. One of the suggestions in the report is that the FCC look carefully at moderate reforms focused on promoting local news and accountability journalism. That’s something that’s gotten vigorous discussion at the agency, and I’m certain will continue to be an area of focus.
Does the FCC have enough power to act on the report’s recommendations?
It does, but I think it’s more important to ask questions and develop answers to those questions first, before we act. If we get the questions right, and we get the answers right, the authority will take care of itself. The commission has broad authority under the communications act. It seems to me that our work and thinking and engagement should be around: ‘How do we set and meet important goals in the new world? What are the best ideas?’ That was really the idea behind the Information Needs report.
What else should the agency continue to focus on from a journalistic perspective?
Well, one of the recommendations of the Information Needs report was that the government put more information online so journalists can access it easily. Second, the ability of journalists to put information on the Internet and be assured that it will reach an audience is very important. We adopted the first enforceable rule to preserve Internet freedom. Continuing to push forward on promoting universal broadband adoption is also important. It’s important both for the American people—we need to make sure that the public has access to all that news and information—and also from a business-model perspective, because the larger the market is for Internet-based journalism, the more it’s possible to develop business models that can support this kind of journalism.
Tell us about your days as a CJR intern.
I remember that it was at the time when personal computers were just hitting college campuses, and I was the first person in my dorm who had a Mac. One of the things I was doing at the time was re-establishing Columbia’s oldest newspaper, Acta Columbiana. I was able to do the layout using this new Mac and produce it on a printer. I remember talking about that with the people I worked with at CJR. We all wondered, ‘Is this going to change the world of newspapers?’
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