FCC's Steve Waldman: Point man for fixing the news business

Imagine being asked to solve a problem so difficult that the smartest people you know have been trying to figure it out for months, even years, without getting anywhere. Now imagine doing it with one metaphorical hand tied behind your back.

That gives you an idea of the challenge Steven Waldman faces in his new job as the Federal Communications Commission's designated deep thinker on the future of media. As a special adviser to Chairman Julius Genachowski, Waldman will be asked to assess the health of the news business and come up with recommendations for improving it -- without exceeding the agency's relatively narrow charter.

Collapsing dailies, shrinking newsrooms, increasing cable-news partisanship, "parasitic" aggregators -- they're all his problem now. Good thing that Waldman, in addition to being a former editor at Newsweek and U.S. News, is also the co-founder of Beliefnet, the religion website that News Corp. (NWS) bought in 2007. With all the problems afflicting the media industry, Waldman will definitely need God on his side.

Daily Finance: Your soon-to-be-former colleagues in journalism are all hoping you'll figure out a way to save our business. That's a lot of pressure. Have old friends been calling you up to wish you luck?
Steven Waldman: Not yet. The reality is, much of what's going to happen to save journalism is going to happen in the private sector and the nonprofit sector, and already is happening there, to some degree. So government can be a really crucial player in this, but it's likely to be a secondary player to the private sector.

So how does one go about fixing the media? Where do you start?

My first assignment is really to figure out what the problem is, and to try to be as precise and kind of data-driven as possible. We certainly all have anecdotal senses of some of the big cosmic shifts going on, but what's the upshot? When you kind of net all these things out, what are the key gaps? What are the key areas that the market's not going to take care of?

I should say I'm being intentionally vague at this point because, until I sit down with the folks within the agency and other stakeholders, we haven't totally nailed down what the parameters are. But the first priority is FCC policy -- what should the FCC, specifically, be doing about this? Then it's a more open question of what should my role be, or what should the role of this project be in recommending ideas for other government policies outside the FCC.

And then, going one more ring outwards, recommendations for the nonprofit sector, and then, finally, recommendations for the for-profit sector. I don't know to what extent we'll get into rings two, three and four. I assume we'll have something to say about things outside the FCC, but my first priority is to help figure out the FCC part.

And the FCC obviously does touch lots of aspects of this and probably more so than ever because the FCC regulates or sets the rules for the pipes of the internet. Between the internet and local TV and mobile, the FCC touches, directly or indirectly, a pretty large swath.

Although one area where the FCC traditionally has had no jurisdiction is newspapers, the media sector in the deepest trouble.
There's no such thing as a newspaper that's just a print newspaper anymore. Every newspaper is a kind of cross-platform thing. That's already true. This isn't some new diving into the media world on the part of the FCC.

The FCC has been and must be very very careful about getting anywhere near regulation of content of news or journalism. That obviously runs against the First Amendment and certainly runs up against my personal bias as a journalist. And yet, at the same time, its policies have huge implications, both direct and indirect, for how media operates and evolves.

Have you had a chance to speak with President Obama about this issue, or to get a sense of his thinking?
My interaction has mostly been with Chairman Genachowski. I have a little bit of a sense of his approach. His charge to me really was to figure it out. I think he's being very kind of admirably open-minded about what the solutions are, which as a journalist I like, but with the ultimate point being that the FCC needs by law and tradition to be looking out for the public interest.

Of course, many hundreds of hours have been spent trying to define the public interest, but when you're talking about media, you're not only talking about an economic reality or concern -- you're talking about democracy. And I think it ought to be something that everyone can agree on that democracy is better-served when people can get the information they need and information that holds leaders accountable.

You and Chairman Genachowski have known each other since college. Besides that, why do you think he selected you for this job?

I think he liked the fact that I have extensive experience in both traditional and new media. It almost divides evenly my career. I worked at Newsweek and U.S. News and at newspapers, and I have a tremendous respect for traditional journalism. I was trained as a traditional journalist. It's all I ever wanted to be from junior high when I started to cover the J.V. football team for my junior-high newspaper, The Dial.

I'm not one of those people who left old-time journalism thinking it's all a bunch of hooey and they don't know what they're talking about. I still have tremendous respect for traditional journalistic values.

On the other hand, I left in 1998 to start a website and have been in new media ever since then, and I'm a huge fan of some of the breathtakingly innovative things that new media has done.

So I bring both of those -- genuine respect for traditional and new media to the table as well as a kind of entrepreneurship. I've had very practical experience trying to launch and sustain a business, which may give me a kind of groundedness about government rules and making sure they reflect the reality of business.

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