FCC Report Cites Lack Of Local News, But Has No Ideas To Fill The Gap

The FCC has produced a 478-page report on the state of the media in the digital age, and-no surprise-the report has found a big gap in watchdog and investigative journalism, and it hasn’t been filled by the proliferation of online news and non-profits. At the same time, the report doesn’t support any major government iniative to correct the situation.

The measures suggested are ones that practically everyone can agree on: increasing broadband access, getting more private funding for nonprofit media, and increasing government transparency with more C-SPAN style initiatives at a state level. Of course, the report took as a central premise the idea that direct government intervention “circumscribes the role government can play in improving local news.”

Some key findings from the report:

»  There’s a big gap in local news reporting. There are fewer newspaper reporters covering “essential beats” like courts, schools, local affairs. The number of reporters in key places of government has dropped considerably. In New Jersey, for example, the number of statehouse reportesr dropped from 35 to 15 between 2003 and 2008. In the same time period, California went from 40 to 29; in Texas from 28 to 18; in Georgia, from 14 to 5.

Daily newspapers cut their editorial spending by $1.6 billion per year from 2006 to 2009; staff has shrunk more than 25 percent since 2006, with some newspapers chopping their staff numbers in half. News magazine staffs are down by half since 1985. “There are about as many journalists working today as there were before Watergate,” notes the report.

»  Hyperlocal is great, up to a point. The report notes that hyperlocal and neighborhood-based options are proliferating and are “better than ever,” offering Americans information they could never get elsewhere. But overall the report reflects the same skepticism held by traditional media companies that online options-hyperlocal or otherwise-will ever fill the gap. While the report praises efforts like Patch, it notes that the effort is focused on wealthier communities and inevitably leaves out many cities. Plus, “a single editor wearing many hats” can’t do the kind of major enterprise reporting that was done by “traditional urban dailies.”

»  The report describes local TV as a kind of news wasteland. The stations are generally pumping up the volume of news while reducing staff, and give short shrift to serious topics like education, health care, and government. The report cites a TV news study by the Annenberg School of Communications that found such hard news topics took up a little over one minute in a 30-minute news broadcast. While coverage of city government withers, crime news proliferates. And the report notes the disturbing trend of “pay-for-play” arrangements, as well as the airing of “video press releases” masquerading as news.

»  Cable news is thriving on a national level but remains stunted at a local level. Only about 25 to 30 percent of the population can watch a local news show on cable.

»  The internet has eliminated the types of “bundling” that used to support print news. It used to be that lifestyle sections covering arts, cars, real estate, etc. produced heaps of revenue that newspapers could divert part of to support investigations and hard news, which were less likely to lead directly to ad buys. But now advertisers can use “social media and direct-to-consumer discount services like Groupon,” meaning they don’t have to pay for the extra news content.

»  Non-profit media, like the Texas Tribune, NJ Spotlight, and MinnPost have shown that “the creativity in this sector is inspiring,” states the report. However, “it is not yet clear which entities will be able to survive and grow in the long run.”

»  Targeted advertising has come under increasing scrutiny in some quarters in Washington. But the FCC calls out targeted online ads as a good thing that could help create “sustainable business models,” notes The Hill. Still, the report does note that policmakers have “legitimate concerns” about tracking online.

Reception of the report has been mixed.

»  At today’s FCC meeting, where the report was presented, Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said the report missed the mark because it didn’t recognize how deep the news crisis is. “[T]he overarching conclusion of the Staff Report seems to be that America’s media landscape is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis of news or information,” he told Broadcasting & Cable. “But there is a crisis when, as this report tells us, more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer no news whatsoever to their communities of license.”

»  But Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said the report’s findings that the media market is competitive and innovative should be read by the government as a “Keep Out” sign. National Journal quoted McDowell as saying: “The government should keep its heavy hands off of journalism.”