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Reinventing journalism 

If the Federal Trade Commission gets its way, in 20 years, most of Charlotte's local news will come from the government.

A freakish, almost Orwellian report released by the FTC two weeks ago calls for the "reinvention of journalism."

In the report, the commission declares traditional journalism's profit model dead and proposes to fill the vacuum with a nationwide government-funded media industry.

If the FTC succeeds, the local media landscape in Charlotte will be unrecognizable in a few decades. Here's what would happen if things go exactly as the FTC proposes:

In 2011, WTVI, the PBS television station, nearly went broke when the County Commission cut off its funding. But by 2025, WTVI is the leader in local news, its television and Internet operations fat with government cash. WCNC, WSOC, News 14 and FOX have long since shut down, unable to compete with the millions the government pumped into WTVI. Back in 2010, the federal government spent a measly $400 million a year on PBS and NPR. But with new taxes on cable television licenses, radio licenses and revenues, a $7-a-month tax on Internet service subscribers and a 5-percent tax on all electronics sales, including iPads and cell phones, the government now flushes $35 billion a year into its news operations.

That was the goal the FTC first set in 2010, to beef up NPR and PBS into top-notch local news outlets that would dominate their local markets and operate as part of a shared government Internet news nexus that is both local and national.

In this environment, only WBTV News managed to hang on by switching to nonprofit status. It has a little bit of advertising, but mostly operates off of government grants and donations.

Like WBTV, The Charlotte Observer has also gone quasi-nonprofit, taking advantage of a special tax status that Congress approved in 2011 for faltering news organizations. They now call themselves "public service media."

The paper and its web operations subsist mainly off of government grants. The Observer has actually grown into a more robust organization than it was in 2010, when shrinking revenues made local news coverage anemic.

But the Observer's "success" comes at a price. Every year, it must reapply to the state "news fund council" for more grant money from the federal government. The councils, first proposed in the FTC's 2010 "Reinventing Journalism" report, are stuffed with political appointees with strong opinions of what the Observer's news coverage should look like. Editors won't admit it -- lest they anger the council and lose their funding -- but they spend a lot of time curtailing their coverage so it won't go over the line and anger fussy council members and the politicians who appointed them.

The Observer's editors also spend a lot of time worrying about the IRS. "The IRS should issue guidance on how a news organization can avoid prohibited political activity," the 2010 FTC report proposed. Now, in 2025, news editors often consult with IRS lawyers about their political coverage so as not to violate tax law. Politicians regularly change the tax laws that govern what reporters can write about them, so it's important to keep up.

In keeping with the FTC's goal of making reporting a "public service," most reporters now join the federal AmeriCorps program for more training after journalism school, as the FTC proposed in 2010. Some reporters and editors are also on staff at universities, which now play a role in news production. Almost 60 percent of the country's reporters are federal or state employees or receive some form of benefits from state or federal government; most of the rest work for news nonprofits.

At the national level, CNN and a government-supported PBS network now dominate news coverage. CNN went nonprofit years ago and is on the government media dole. Fox News is still somewhat popular, but only a shadow of what it once was thanks to crushing taxes it must pay to keep its operating license and a second layer of taxation on its advertising revenues that has caused some decline in its reporting. But it has fared better than its former cable news competitors, which are now mostly out of business.

Fox's other big problem is the new fair use law. Sets of facts that make up breaking news are now owned by the news organizations that first report them and shared, with attribution, among a monopoly of "first-responder" media. Everyone else, including cable news stations, Internet and terrestrial radio, and bloggers must wait weeks for the story to "age" before they can use others' facts. This has put a real chill on Internet debate, discussion and reporting, and only a few big websites still generate their own news "facts" for profit.

In 2025, the FTC's new, reinvented journalism has grown into a $35 billion government industry. The FTC spends a lot of time cracking down on American journalists and bloggers who have begun to move their servers outside the country to escape onerous taxation and the regulation of facts. Some are even operating from China. It's a problem the government is working on.

But journalism, everyone agrees, has been saved.

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