Should Journalism Be Subject to Anti-Trust Laws?

Nina Totenberg’s thought-experiment about the future of the press

Jim Young / Reuters

All week, I’ve been running responses to the question, “Is there an idea in your field, or beyond it, that would benefit from being debated more widely, vigorously, or robustly?” Nina Totenberg, the legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, offered an idea about the future of a long-suffering industry.

She wrote:

We all know that print journalism, in fact journalism as we know it, is in peril, largely because people have gotten used to having access to it all for free, and no system has adequately replaced subscription fees as a way to pay for reporters, editors, etc.  Indeed, now there are ways to circumvent ads online.  

Should Congress write an anti-trust exemption that allows large consortiums of media groups to band together and require small payments for access?  Thus, for example, The Atlantic, the NYT, a bunch of regional papers, the Financial Times, The New Yorker,  and lots more might band together.  And a separate group might team the WaPo, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Time Mag, the Wall St. Journal, etc.  

Anyone could access the consortium’s products for free the first, say, 25 or 50 times. It would be up to the consortium to set the threshold.   But each access after that would be charged at, say 1 cent a view, for short pieces, 5 cents, for longer ones-again, up to the consortium.   Under current law, such consortiums could well be deemed an anti-trust violation.

I was pondering a related issue recently when the Orange County Register came up for sale. An attempt to purchase it was made by the company that owns the Los Angeles Times, but a judge blocked the sale out of concern that it would give them a monopoly on local news. Does that make sense in an era when newspapers aren’t losing business to one another so much as all the other things people do with their time, and when competition for ad dollars is largely against non-journalistic companies? Then again, the Register was sold to Digital First Media, the major competition to the Times in Southern California. (Disclosure: I write a column once a month at the Los Angeles Times; before its bankruptcy I wrote a column for the Orange County Register; and I used to work for the company that just bought the Register.)

Totenberg is a speaker this year at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Email with your thoughts.