Many news organizations have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. While the abundance of free, online news has helped wreak havoc on the industry, the Internet itself has created incredible possibilities for news outlets to expand their reach and spark innovation. Thanks to the Internet, audiences can contribute to reporting and news in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Even the most venerable papers are experimenting with crowdsourced journalism.

But that exciting potential would vanish without a free and open Internet — a very real possibility that right now seems lost upon the Fourth Estate, despite its increasing investment in community contributions to news. With a Net neutrality battle brewing in the courts, journalists have to speak up now or risk losing the creative possibilities the web has to offer.

Right now, news outlets are taking full advantage of the open Internet. The New York Times has invited readers to help comb through the schedule of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and contribute photographs for a global project documenting one specific moment. The Guardian recruited more than 20,000 readers to assess the expense records of British MPs, even managing to infuse fun into the drudgery.

TPM Muckraker has done the same, asking readers to help triage Justice Department documents related to the firing of U.S. attorneys. ProPublica has a distributed reporting project designed to gather tips, data, and sources from readers. DocumentCloud works with many online and print publications, providing tools to help include readers in document analysis. AOL Patch is attempting to build a new business model for local news and information based around some combination of full-time, freelance, piecework, volunteer labor, and public submissions.

These creative reporting projects are possible because the Internet is a two-way communication medium. These days, most Americans have access to the Internet, and they are increasingly using it to create content as well as consume it.

That might not last long. The open access to the Internet required for these journalistic experiments, and the many other innovative uses of crowdsourced news, is under threat. Consumer advocates, telecommunications companies and media companies are facing off over what’s known as Net neutrality, the idea that a network must treat all content equally.

A Net Without Neutrality

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Supporters of Net neutrality protested at Google’s headquarters last year

No one knows just what the web looks like without Net neutrality. One possibility is a tiered Internet, where the web would be more like cable TV, with basic channels available for one price, and access to the broader web available at higher fees. In this scenario, your Internet service provider could charge you to participate in the news the way your cell phone company charges for a text message. Companies could limit the sites you can access altogether, or they could provide a fast lane for some paying content providers, and a slow lane for everyone else.

What we do know is this: Without an open Internet, all the creative crowdsourced projects are castles built on sand. Despite journalism’s increasing reliance on a neutral network, most journalists and their trade associations have been silent on this issue.

There are two factors working against journalists advocating for policies to protect this key media infrastructure. First, they don’t advocate for policy. Second, they don’t understand infrastructure.

Journalists are told to be objective or, at the very least, to keep their opinions to themselves. That illusion is cracking, thanks to inadvertent leaks and thoughtful critique. Some journalists are pushing for transparency to replace objectivity as journalism’s guiding principle. But in most newsrooms, reporters are barred from signing petitions, donating to causes or campaigns, and generally expressing an opinion in a public forum, online or off.

Many journalists are also proud Luddites, adopting emerging technologies only under duress. It fits with the archetype of the curmudgeonly reporter with a heart of gold pecking away at his Underwood. That, too, is changing as digital natives join the journalism workforce, and new media is increasingly accepted as part of the journalism universe. It’ll change more as digital natives start moving into management.

But even people who love using new tools often don’t understand the infrastructure that supports them. Most people who write for the Internet don’t spend time thinking about the cables or fiber or phone wires that bring the Internet to their house, or the agencies that govern these services and technologies. In an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to. The Internet should reliably connect them and their audience so they can just think about their brilliant pieces of investigative reporting, or their recipes, or their hungover owls, or their particular corner of the country.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. To preserve the tools and technologies most reporters take for granted requires vigilance, organizing, and yes, the a-word: advocacy.

Silence From Journalist Associations

Most major American newspapers have published editorials on Net neutrality, both for and against. Some individual journalists have been vocal on the issue, notably Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor. But media is their beat, and they’re sort of hybrid journalists-slash-advocates, so they’re far from the journalistic norm. (How many reporters have the types of personal, financial, and professional disclosures that Jarvis and Gillmor do on their sites?)

The trade associations representing journalists have been noticeably absent from public discussions about Net neutrality. When the FCC recently invited comments on open Internet principles and Net neutrality, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors*, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and even the Online News Association were all silent on the issue.

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When contacted, Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the SPJ is “not unaware of this debate” and is “open to hearing all sides.”

“In general,” said Scott Leadingham, SPJ’s director of communications, “we would find something like Net neutrality to be in concert with the general principles we try to defend.”

The organization’s Digital Media Committee would likely agree. It recently released a report on SPJ’s relevance in the digital age, the third recommendation of which is that SPJ “become an advocate for expanding access to the Internet, news and information.” (Disclosure: My husband, Joshua Breitbart, works on media policy issues at the New America Foundation and was interviewed by SPJ for that report.)

Jane McDonnell, executive director of the Online News Association, said a newly-formed board committee will be looking into the issue in the coming months.

Jane Nassiri, executive director of Radio Television Digital News Association, said the organization has not taken a position on net neutrality. Richard Karpel, executive director of the American Society of News Editors said the organization does not have a formal position on net neutrality.

UNITY Steps Up

Only one professional journalism association submitted comments to the FCC on Net neutrality: UNITY, the national association for journalists of color.

UNITY expressed support for an open Internet in no uncertain terms. Network neutrality, it said, “can empower journalists of color, as well as all people of color, by allowing them to speak directly to their communities without being censored by gatekeepers.”

UNITY urged the FCC “to protect our press freedoms by making sure that telecommunications and cable companies do not take away access to a free and open Internet.” But they were alone in that call.

Journalists of color have a particular stake in preserving an open Internet. Even with the often race- and class-based digital divides that have shut out many people, the online world has amplified their voices, providing a platform for inter- and intra-community conversations and reporting. Sites like New America Media have brought the nation’s ethnic press to a broad audience. Sites like Racialicious and ColorLines have expanded participation in discussions around race.

Without an open Internet, those outlets lose key values: affordable distribution and the chance to reach any and everyone interested enough to look for something new. The saying goes that the press is free to those who own one. There’s a reason the phrase is “press” rather than “pen.” It’s one thing to write a brilliant article, but the power lies in being able to distribute it widely. It’s the distribution that makes it freedom.

The FCC issued a rule on Net neutrality in late December, which pleased more or less no one. The rule generally preserves the Net neutrality status quo for what are known as wired lines — the DSL, cable, and fiber lines connected to plugs or routers in your house. What it doesn’t do is extend Net neutrality into the mobile broadband arena — smartphones, in other words. And that’s a potentially big problem, because mobile computing is growing fast.

Particularly in communities of color, phones are a primary source of Internet access. Consumer advocates slammed the FCC rule. Verizon and MetroPCS are suing the FCC over it; other suits may well be coming.

If journalists are going to weigh in, the time is now. Journalists should tell Congress and the Federal Communications Commission how essential the open Internet is to our work. It stands to reason that if we want unbiased reporting, we also need unbiased infrastructure to create and distribute it. In speaking out for an open Internet, we’d be advocating for neutrality itself.

  • CORRECTION: The story incorrectly referred to the ASNE as the American Society of Newspaper Editors and Reporters.

Image of Net neutrality protest by Steve Rhodes via Flickr.

Kat Aaron a project editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, DC. Kat is also a fellow at the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation, part of a cohort of academics and journalists exploring the future of journalism. She tweets about economics, politics, journalism and occasionally food at @kataaron.

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