June 17, 2011
Getting Reporters Off the Hamster Wheel: The FCC and the Future of Mediaby J. Max Robins
The crisis in journalism lies in the decline of news stories that are costly to produce and that advertisers don't like to pay for.
That's how the FCC's Steven Waldman summed it up yesterday at the Media + Technology Funding Outlook conference, held here at the Paley Center for Media. Presented by the organization Grantmakers in Film & Electronic Media, the conference brought folks from foundations including Knight, Ford, and Mozilla together with the likes of New America Foundation's Steve Coll, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, ProPublica's Paul Steiger, and others dedicated to ensuring a future for quality journalism. And it offered a perfect forum for Waldman, a veteran journalist himself, to discuss the FCC report he authored.
Released June 9, “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age" presents an abundance of research and stark conclusions about the state of the Fourth Estate, with a clear goal of spurring innovation and investment. The report acknowledges the extent to which technology has brought incredible vibrancy to the news and information landscape, providing ways to keep government more transparent and the public more informed. But as Waldman reiterated yesterday, that technological revolution has also upended traditional business models and left serious gaps in news coverage, particularly in state and local government and related issues like education and the environment. The result is what he calls the "hamsterization" of news (a nod to Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman), wherein technologically-enabled reporters scramble to produce greater quantities of lesser quality content on multiple platforms. Meanwhile, those costly stories that advertisers don't like to pony up for -- what the report calls “accountability journalism” -- has taken a severe hit, as newspapers and TV news departments have endured years of deep staff cuts. "There's no app for that," quipped Waldman with dark humor.
The FCC is not the first government agency to identify the precarious state of the watchdog press. A year after the Senate held hearings in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission floated the idea of federal subsidies for the press. The idea of government subsidies for a beleaguered press was also proposed in the 2009 report “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” which suggested, among other things, that the FCC set up a fund derived from various taxes to dispense to worthy local news organizations.
Waldman's report wisely stops short of such recommendations. Pushing some sort of Marshall Plan to rebuild a decimated local news landscape would be foolhardy given the current political climate and the realities of keeping our news outlets as free as possible from government intervention.
Instead, the report rightly lauds -- and lobbies for continued support of -- public broadcasting and the admirable job public radio and statewide C-SPAN networks have performed in picking up some of the slack in local coverage, and lobbies. It also applauds journalism schools nationwide for increasingly taking classrooms into the street to address the coverage gaps, training a whole new cadre of news professionals to take advantage of the technologies that are at their disposal. And it suggests cutting red-tape for news organizations to become non-profits.
There’s much in the recommendations section of the report that shows a keen understanding of the marketplace and a willingness by the FCC to spur innovation, including pushing for universal broadband deployment and online entrepreneurship (further indication of the FCC's aggressive stance on freeing up unused broadcast spectrum). Most importantly, the report identifies where there is opportunity in the marketplace. Now it’s up to those in the business of news, and those in the public and private sectors, to find innovative ways to capitalize on that opportunity. It was a message well received by the attendees at the Media + Technology Funding Outlook conference.
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