The FCC Takes on the Future of Journalism

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A 360-page report finds a significant gap in newsgathering resources that the Internet has only begun to fill

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The last few years have been a bonanza for major studies, reports, conferences, and panels under the general rubric of the future of the media. The precipitous and probably irreversible drop in newspaper revenues coupled with the explosive growth in the reach of online news outlets (without a clear-cut business model) provided an irresistible basis for pondering what all the upheaval means. The latest and certainly one of the most comprehensive of these examinations (at 360 dense pages, not including notes) was the report released last week by a Federal Communications Commission working group. For readers with a high-speed printer or a good mobile device (tablet or e-reader), the PDF is available on the FCC website. At some point, the project was rebranded from a relatively snappy forecast of the media's prospects and given a wonkier title: The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.

The report, from the opening paragraph to its closing peroration, makes the point that we are in a proverbial best-of-times and worst-of-times era for news

The leader of the working group was Steven Waldman, a senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski whose resume includes writing, editing, and a successful website start-up (Beliefnet.com). To create the group, he assembled what he called an "ongoing, informal" collection of FCC staff and outside scholars and consultants. They spent two years, conducted six hundred interviews, held FCC workshops, and gathered a formidable aggregation of facts about all aspects of the media landscape, but especially about the decline in newsgathering resources among newspapers, news magazines, local radio and television—a gap that the Internet has only begun to fill. The report mentions, for example, that 27 states have no Washington reporters, according to an annual Pew foundation study; from 2003 to 2008, the number of statehouse reporters nationally dropped by a third, the American Journalism Review concluded; and the Baltimore Sun, to take one representative example cited by Pew, produced 73 percent fewer stories in 2009 than in 1991. The conclusions drawn from this data highlight a significant gap, particularly in local reporting, with serious consequences for "accountability" journalism. To anyone with more than a casual interest in the field, this is hardly surprising, but the cumulative measurement of the decline in newsgathering and reporting is still striking.

As a repository of information, the report is clearly useful, but to limit suggestions of government interference in media management, the prologue circumscribes its standing with the caveat that Waldman (and not the FCC) took responsibility for aligning the findings from the working group, and that the conclusions in the report "do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Communication Commission, its Commissioners or any individual Bureaus or Offices." Nonetheless, this is an ambitious appraisal of the evolving universe of news, underwritten by the FCC, which could make its findings more influential in official circles than the reams of other such studies.

Overall, the report, from the opening paragraph to its closing peroration, makes the point that we are in a proverbial best-of-times and worst-of-times era for news:

In most ways today's media landscape is more vibrant than ever, offering faster and cheaper distribution networks, fewer barriers to entry and more ways to consume information. Choice abounds. Local TV stations, newspapers and a flood of innovative web start-ups are now using a dazzling array of digital tools to improve the way they gather and disseminate the news—nationally or internationally, but block by block. Yet, in part, because of the digital revolution, serious problems have arisen as well. Most significant among them: in many communities we now face a shortage of local, professional accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability—more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools and other serious community problems. 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.

Given that the report was mandated by a major government agency, there was potential for it to produce recommendations of some consequence from its extensive research. A Wall Street Journal piece on the eve of study's release reflected an apparent downgrading of a possible government role in tackling the problems the working group identified. "My expectation has been that when we were finally turning the commission's attention to media, we'd have a program and a plan to address the news and information needs of the country and a specific plan for those areas where the FCC can be active," said Michael Copps, a Democratic commissioner. "It's fair to say that I'd have written a significantly different report," he added, presumably with guidelines for more public service journalism from parts of the media industry that are subject in any way to FCC jurisdiction.

The report does assert that "it would be public policy malpractice to simply assume that the current (voluminous) set of public policies about communications—some crafted before there was an Internet—are well suited for the 21st century." But the actual recommendations are modest: greater transparency about information required by the FCC; targeting more government advertising toward local media; and expanding broadband access (which the Obama administration has set as a priority).

Disappointingly narrow as these recommendations are, it is a good reminder that, when the government does play an active role in media development, it invariably runs into political pressures, as recently happened with the threatened congressional cutbacks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the principal supplier of federal funds in support of public radio and television. So, plaudits go to the FCC for a thorough big take on the dynamic media scene. But, ultimately, this report shows that, much as some would wish it to be otherwise, a robust government contribution to news gathering through regulation and financial allowances that would address the problems described in The Information Needs of Communities is unlikely anytime soon.

Image: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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