Fiber boost for local journalism?

Journalists should take up the fight for municipal-fiber networks in their communities, argues open-internet advocate Susan Crawford

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — This is a pivotal time for telecommunications policy. The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger gets a Senate hearing next week, even as these cable behemoths face some nascent competition from Google Fiber in Kansas City and other municipal-fiber networks. The FCC recently announced that it would be taking a critical look at a group of state laws backed by the cable lobby that attempt to block such networks.

One of the most outspoken advocates in the fight for community fiber networks is Susan Crawford, Harvard Law School’s John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and a former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. Crawford, who is also a contributor to Bloomberg View and Wired, is passionate about the future of journalism, and she argues that journalism associations should embrace municipal-fiber networks as a means to establish a funding stream for the revival of local, community-spirited reporting. “It’s an exciting time to be a journalist,” she says—but, she warns, local news may be a dying commodity unless journalists demand “a seat at the table” as communities look to establish fiber networks.

Last week, Crawford spoke to CJR about the promise of Google Fiber and other municipal networks, the dangers of media consolidation, and the stakes for the future of journalism in the battle over telecommunications infrastructure.

You’ve proposed that journalism schools should support municipal fiber networks in their communities. How do you see such networks benefiting journalists and their work?

The notion is that as cities make the important decision to ensure that their citizens have reasonably priced fiber access, part of that decision has to be ensuring that local journalism outlets—and libraries and other sources of important civic informational goods—are funded and supported and connected.

I went to Stockholm over Christmas break… There are four or five competitors providing fiber directly to consumers and businesses in Stockholm. They’ve got 100 percent coverage for businesses and more than 90 percent coverage for residents at very low prices. So I’m paying here in New York four times as much as someone in Stockholm pays, for a connection that’s 17 times worse. And it appears to me that we need to make that same upgrade in America. And it needs to happen at the city level because federal policy is completely stuck at this point.

And the city managers and mayors need to be thinking about the future of journalism and funding for it at the same time they make that upgrade.

Some portion of the reasonable bills that people pay for their internet access should go to funding journalism in every town in America. And there can be intermediaries in the form of journalism schools who make sure that funding is distributed justly. In a wise society, that’s what would happen.

Do you see this as something that not only journalism schools but journalism associations, newspaper associations, and the journalism community in general could be advocating for?

Yes, this isn’t limited to journalism schools. The trade associations or other institutions that already exist in the journalism world should be active in pushing mayors to make this upgrade, and making sure that they have a seat at the table when mayors are considering how these funding streams are going to be worked out from the use of this basic infrastructure.

Because we’re discovering that journalism, especially investigative journalism, doesn’t necessarily pay for itself, that it is more appropriately done on a nonprofit model. We had the accident of several years of advertising-supported, bundled news, where the sports and financial information was cross-subsidizing serious local journalism. Now that newspapers have lost control over their distribution mechanism, they’ve lost the ability to carry out that cost-subsidization based on an advertising model effectively, and the result is impoverishment of local journalism. …

It should be that every neighborhood has its own local journalistic function, with reporters taught how to report stories based on data from their neighborhood and the people they’ve talked to, and editors employed to help get it out in the best, most readable way, and a citizenry that is engaged in the place where they live.

Of course, journalists value their independence. Is there a danger of that independence being compromised if they make these kinds of arrangements with municipalities as you’re proposing?

Here’s the thing. For science funding, the entire science community is dependent on the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And we trust these institutions to make good decisions about where that funding should go because we know that private industry, left to its own devices, is not going to sufficiently support the basic public good of scientific research. It’s the same story on the journalism side.

I understand that there’s this very quick reaction by journalists to any state involvement in their function, and I respect that. But the fact is that we should be able to trust institutions akin to the National Science Foundation in each community to make wise allocative decisions about where this money will go.

I’m not suggesting that the private funding of journalism needs to vanish. I’m just saying that it’s painfully obvious that it’s not adequate to support the information needs of an American city. We’re seeing local news in particular as a vanishing element of civic life in this country. And we need to treat this as an emergency and do something about it. And I see a very substantial opportunity in this moment when the whole country should be making the upgrade to fiber.

In addition to Google Fiber here in the Kansas City area, we already have some other smaller municipal networks in the Midwest, in places like Chanute, Kansas and Cedar Falls, Iowa. These networks are already up and running without the elements that you’re advocating. Even in the absence of these civic-journalism funding arrangements, do you still see benefits for journalists in these communities from having fiber networks?

Absolutely. The idea of being able to communicate without worrying about the cost or the capacity of your connection is enormously freeing for journalists. The whole movement being sparked in large part by what’s going on in the Columbia Journalism School to ensure that journalists can work with large data sets—that’s only possible where you have a high-capacity connection.

I think actually the advent of fiber is a tremendous boost to journalists around the country. What I’m worried about, though, is the ability of the people who make and edit journalism to make an honest livelihood. So we need to talk about money as well, I think.

Here in Kansas, a bill attempting to block municipal fiber has been turned back, at least for the moment. The FCC also recently said it was going to be taking a hard look at similar state measures that have become law. Do you think the tide might be turning nationally in favor of municipal fiber and against the telecom lobby?

I do. I see this as a very bright time for these municipal networks, particularly where the network itself is just viewed as infrastructure…

There are 400 of these efforts already across the country and there will be many more coming online. And the mayors learn from each other, and the cost for equipment goes down, and the public becomes more supportive of the idea that high-capacity connectivity is just a utility, not a luxury, and it’s something that every element of society needs to thrive in the 21st century.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote recently in a piece for CJR that journalists should come out in opposition to big-media mergers like the one pending between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. I know you’ve spoken out against this particular merger; do you believe it’s in the best interest of journalist associations to do the same?

Well, I think we should be positive about this. I think that journalists should be speaking in favor of the widest, richest, most open flow of information possible—you know, the Mississippi River of information. And it’s clear that leaving our informational futures in the hands of the cable companies threatens that flow because they can act like gatekeepers at every juncture of that flow, charging rent to every element of the informational ecosystem. None of that is good for the profession of journalism.

It does seem to me that we’re on the wrong trajectory in this country and that the merger is a symptom of that trajectory. But what really needs to happen is changing direction and having journalists and other people in the business of information-flow making clear that what we really need is cheap, ubiquitous service across the country. And that may require positive regulation of existing networks and simply building alternative networks that are open, ubiquitous, and cheap.

You were just here in Kansas City taking a look at the Google Fiber setup. What were your impressions?

I had a terrific time in Kansas City. Over three days I met with people from many different parts of Kansas City life—from startups, to people on the other side of the line who have very low internet penetration in their neighborhoods, to librarians, to the mayor, older people, younger people. What I’m looking for are the human stories that demonstrate that the values of kindness and compassion and public thinking are at the heart of the debate about communications networks. This really isn’t about technology but about personal stories. …There is an ability in Kansas City to think of this as infrastructure, not a luxury, and as part of a revitalization of a great city.

Do you see the expansion of Google Fiber as something that can benefit those of us in the media industry?

I really view Google Fiber as an opportunity to fire the imagination, because what we’re suffering from more than anything is poverty of the imagination when it comes to high-capacity networks. People don’t understand that having a fiber connection is as different from current internet access as having electricity was different from not having electricity. It’s a phase change, not just a difference in speed. … People can be present to each other over these networks in ways that are not possible with a current internet connection.

So I think it’s an exciting time for journalists, like librarians and like civil servants, to reimagine their own roles in a world with ubiquitous connectivity. We’re just at the beginning of the beginning. …We have no idea what we’re about to get into. It’s an exciting time to be alive—and it’s an exciting time to be a journalist. We just need to get the funding model straight.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , , , ,