FCC: Move to digital hasn't improved local news reporting

From the “The Feds Are The Last To Know Department”:

The Federal Communications Commission released a study today reporting that an “explosion of online news sources in recent years has not produced a corresponding increase in reporting, particularly quality local reporting …” The study, titled “Information Needs of Communities” takes a broad but somewhat shallow look at the media landscape. It reads as more of a history of how modern media arrived at its current state than as a clear, practical recipe for change.

The study — which looks at the local reporting performance of all media, not just that of newspapers — was undertaken by senior FCC adviser Steven Waldman, a former journalist for Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. According to his study:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.

Well, duh. As for newspapers, the FCC could have saved some money by reading critiques of press performance at S&R here and here, many posts at Alan Mutter’s “Reflections of a Newsosaur” blog, this piece by newspaper-industry analyst John Morton’s column in American Journalism Review. Or follow @themediaisdying on Twitter. Or Pew’s “State of the News Media” series. Or it could have just weighed a copy of my local newspaper from 10 years ago and compared it with its featherlight weight today.

Or the FCC could have just kept track of the tens of thousands of daily print journalists who’ve lost their jobs through layoffs or buyouts over the past five years. For many who follow diminished quantity of good local reporting, especially local government reporting, the results of the FCC’s study are no surprise.

In late 2009 I wrote about declining newspaper circulation and its consequences on local reporting:

This hemmoraghing of circulation — the worst ever — will have serious consequences. Expect newspaper staffs, already slashed below the minimum necessary to adequately cover their turf, to be cut further. Expect more shallow, one-source stories. Expect more stories laden with anonymous sources because the poorly paid, younger, inexperienced reporters left on staff won’t have the skill to persuade sources to speak on the record. Expect more wire-service content because local stories won’t get done. Expect corporate newspaper management to continue to stall on finding a business model that enhances the public-service mission of journalism. Expect more style than substance.

Just expect less of what good newspapers used to be. The nation’s newspapers, the constitutionally anointed watchdogs and adversaries of government, can no longer be considered as successful in those roles as they used to be.

Newspapers are not alone in being insufficiently staffed and oriented toward quality local reporting in particular and serving all local information needs in general, the FCC found. From that perspective, its broad, historical look is helpful.

And what does the FCC suggest be done about the information needs of communities? The study offers few recommendations that would directly increase revenue at local newspapers (which is required if increased quantity of quality local reporting is sought):

1 — Accelerate move from paper to online disclosure. Disclosure information required by the FCC should be moved online from filing cabinets to the Internet so the public can more easily gain access to valuable information. FCC should eliminate burdensome rules and streamline disclosures about local programming by moving files online.
2 — Remove barriers to innovation and online entrepreneurship by pushing for universal broadband deployment and adoption. Achieving this goal would remove cost barriers, strengthen online business models, expand consumer pools and ensure that the news and information landscape serves communities to the maximum possible benefit of citizens.
3 — Target existing federal spending at local media. Existing government advertising spending, such military recruiting and public health ads, should be targeted toward local media whenever possible. Each year, the federal government spends roughly $1 billion in advertising without maximizing potential benefits to local media.
4 — Repeal Fairness Doctrine, terminate localism proceeding and replace “enhanced disclosure” with a new streamlined system of online disclosure. Broadcasters would disclose amount of programming about the community and other important information.
5 — Discourage “pay-for-play” arrangements – in which TV stations allow advertisers to dictate on-air content without disclosing to viewers – by requiring online disclosure of such arrangements.
6 — Re-assess whether the satellite TV’s set-aside for educational programming and cable TV leased access systems are working; put satellite disclosure online.
7 — There should be state-based C-SPAN in every state. Cable and satellite operators, public broadcasters and PEG channels should work toward that goal, and policymakers should consider offering incentives for those media organizations that take such steps, or to those that provide support for local cable news operations.
8 — Re-establish tax certificate program for small businesses including minorities and women.
9 — Policymakers should consider clarifications or changes in tax rules that would make it easier for nonprofit news operations to develop sustainable business models.
10 — Focus on historically underserved when policymakers craft strategies and rules.

Whew. That’s quite a laundry list. I’d hoped for greater clarity and how-to-do-it practicality.

Some recommendations seem designed to save the federal government money more than serve local information needs. Some seem politically impossible. Some would require significant capital outlays by either government or industry (or by a “quasi public-private partnership”). Isn’t “pay for play” already illegal?

No. 2 has several vague clauses: What media are not trying to do this? And doesn’t this assume that the federal government has a demonstrated commitment to universal broadband access for all information-seeking Americans? The new business model for newspapers (there seem to be several contenders at the moment) must rely on such access.

No doubt those with different perspectives on media will read into these recommendations different regulatory, private investment, or legislation paths to their enactment. Like many, if not most, government studies, the FCC’s provides goals but no definitive roadmap to achieve those goals.

Meanwhile, I continue to live in a small town underserved by the newspaper that says it covers five counties in two states. And my town borders the city in which that newspaper is published.

I’m not alone. At the least the FCC study calls attention to communities whose information needs continue to go unfulfilled. Without ready access to information, more people may make fewer well-informed political or consumer decisions. In a modern democracy (and faltering economy), that’s costly.

h/t: Greg Stene

4 replies »

  1. Is Patch part of the answer? I was looking at the one for my town and its local coverage isn’t bad.

  2. I have a three- or four-point plan that I feel certain would work, but it requires a time machine and a willingness to kill Reagan’s FCC chairman.

  3. Impressive analysis and writing, as always. I am suddenly wondering what became of all the hope for the (unpaid) citizen journalism that was supposed to be easing in on local coverage as the newspapers were easing their way out.

    Did people suddenly discover that good journalism is work? And doing it for free sucks?