Local journalism has not been able to keep up with a changing media landscape, leading to a significant drop in quality in-depth reporting, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study found.
The long-awaited “Future of the Media” report, in the works since 2009 and now titled “Information Needs of Communities,” was released Thursday after its authors investigated for 18 months the sweeping changes affecting the traditional media industry, particularly the widespread decline in newspaper production. As advertisers move to cheaper outlets on the Internet and the country's weakened economy forces daily newsrooms to downsize, staffing levels continue to drop, having fallen by more than 25 percent since 2001.
“As technology offered consumers new choices, it upended traditional news industry business models, resulting in massive job losses … This has created gaps in coverage that even the fast-growing digital world has yet to fill,” lead author Steven Waldman stated in the report.
Waldman, a former journalist and founder of Beliefnet.com, led the FCC working group in formulating the study. The committee interviewed more than 600 groups, held multiple hearings and visited newsrooms around the country.
In a press release, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski also addressed the reporting gap outlined in the report, stating, “Foremost is the disruptive impact the Internet has had on local news gathering. This is an emerging gap in local news coverage that has not yet been fully filled by other media.”
According to the report, an increase in alternative media outlets in many communities did not necessarily increase reporting in those areas – which could result in less government accountability and important issues going undocumented.
“A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little,” the report stated. “[The] independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism – going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy – in some cases is at risk.”
Genachowski echoed the report's findings, saying, “[The] less quality reporting we have, the less likely we are to learn about government misdeeds.”
Key recommendations included creating C-SPAN stations in every state to report on local public affairs, re-establishing tax cuts for small businesses and nonprofit news outlets, and moving disclosure information online so that the public can more easily find valuable information.
However, the report also noted that the First Amendment prevents the government from becoming too involved in shaping the future of the industry.
“Government is not the main player in this drama,” the report stated. “The nonprofit media sector is increasingly diverse, and now includes nonprofit websites, state-level C-SPANS, public access channels, low-power FM stations, journalism schools, and public TV and radio stations. These entities, many of which are not government funded, need to play a bigger role and be better understood.”
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president of media reform group Media Access Project (MAP), said the FCC's study did not provide a sufficient number of solutions for the challenges facing the journalism industry, particularly in TV news. The report, “appears to contain a sound diagnosis but falls short on recommendations for treatment,” Schwartzman said. “Broadcasting remains the predominant source of news and information at the local level … [Yet] the staff report does not call for every radio and TV station to make a meaningful contribution to coverage of local issues.”
Craig Aaron, president and CEO of media watchdog Free Press, agreed. Aaron said the study, “at first glance … appears to be a major disappointment. The report discusses many important ideas, but where the FCC actually has the power to help local communities, the agency abdicates its responsibility in the areas…. While we commend Steve Waldman and his team for the countless hours they spent reaching out and listening to different stakeholders, we're troubled that the report's conclusion seems disconnected from its own evidence.”
Aaron said that the report highlighted many favorable solutions suggested by groups and individuals who participated in the study, including diversity in ownership and tax policy changes that would support nonprofit news outlets – but that the FCC could not actually enforce those policies if they became law.
Aaron also criticized the FCC for recommending media consolidation as a viable answer to the decline of quality journalism. “The FCC's own data shows that prior consolidation and cross-ownership lead to an overall decrease in local news production. If the FCC decides to relax, waive, or ignore its own rules that prevent the formation of local media monopolies … it will not cure what ails journalism or the media industry.”
“The release of this report is not the end of the discussion,” Aaron said.