News, Sunshine, Secrecy, and First Sale Rights

The news business, the fight against CIPSA, and an important Supreme Court decision - all on my mind this week. 

March 20, 2013

It has been quite a week. The Project for Excellence in Journalism published its annual State of the News Media report, an awesome source of information for news junkies and anyone concerned about the fourth estate. This year it finds that news reporting continues to erode, under pressure as newsrooms are gutted to balance budgets. Newspapers have shrunk their news operations enormously over the past few years, with newsrooms losing 30 percent of their reporters since 2000 (and most of those losses since 2005). Newspapers are increasingly turning to metered access to generate revenue, something the Washington Post announced it would do this week. About a third of daily papers have adopted or plan to soon adopt paywalls similar to that of the New York Times. Television news is being hit hard, with local news channels focusing more on traffic, weather and sports and less on news (and crime taking up a large portion of what passes for news). CNN has halved its in-depth news production since 2007. “This adds up," the report concludes, "to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands.” A survey of readers finds that citizens are abandoning news outlets because they no longer provide substantial reporting. One eloquent chart shows a steep decline in overall advertising dollars, and indicates how tiny the revenue from digital advertising is compared to print. Google, Twitter, and Pandora (!) scoop up most of the digital advertising dollar. In cable news, Fox claims the largest audience by far. It’s a fascinating report, well worth browsing.

This report is released annually during Sunshine Week. Though our sunshine is coming with frigid temperatures in Minnesota at the moment, this is a week that highlights the importance of open government because (as a Supreme Court Justice once said, inaccurately if poetically, “sunshine is the best disinfectant”).  Want information that isn’t handily online? File a freedom of information request (perhaps using the handy FOIA request generator provided by the Reporter's Committee for the Freedom of the Press). The National Security Archive does it all the time. So do journalists at  ProPublica and other news organizations
As much as we need to know what the government is up to, we don’t necessarily want them looking over our shoulders. This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is raising the alarm about the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) introduced in Congress last month.  It’s one of those zombie bills that failed in the past but won’t stay dead. This bill has serious privacy issues. It weakens the few privacy protections we have and allows private internet service providers  to give your personal information to the NSA and other government agencies without your knowledge. Though it’s in the name of cybersecurity, it doesn’t really do much to protect us, though it weakens our personal security from surveillance. We’ve gotten tired of the multiple assaults on privacy from both public and private sectors, but this is a bill worth opposing. 
Which brings me to the last bit of news. The EFF along with library organizations and others filed amicus briefs in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, a case that questioned whether the first sale right on which libraries rely applies to good manufactured abroad. ("First sale" is shorthand for the idea that a copyright holder can control distribution of a copyrighted work until it is sold for the first time; afterwards, the exclusive right of distribution is exhausted and the new owner is free to sell, loan, or give the work away.) Wiley hoped to prevent importation of cheaper textbooks from abroad to the US market by arguing the first sale right only pertained to goods originating in the US. They said nobody would sue a library or an individual for sharing or selling a book; publishers would only sue to preserve their regional textbook pricing model. The majority opinion found that "trust us - we won't sue you" notion unsupportable, writing "a copyright law that can work in practice only if unenforced is not a sound copyright law." It's a huge relief to have this decision.Kenneth Crews of Columbia University reckons this will spur licensing (which skirts around first sale rights) or may lead to new legislation or be altered through international treaties favorable to intellectual property owners. (The secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership has reportedly shown interest in doing away with first sale rights.) But meanwhile, the decision handed down on Tuesday was a huge relief. 
All in all, this has been a good week for news, even if it hasn't been a good year for the news industry. I serve as an example of a tendency to rely on friends for news - I got word of the supreme court decision via Twitter. But I appreciate that my personal network, heavy on librarians, scientists, and humanists with an interest in technology, can't do a whole lot to inform me about injection wells or wall street money shenanigans or how super pacs are using big data to influence elections. For that, I need journalists - like those doing in-depth investigations for ProPublica - who can do the digging and put it together in a way that will make sense to a non-expert. We all need good reporting. Let's hope we can figure out how to pay for it differently in a world that needs it as badly as ever. 

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