FCC opens probe into future of journalism


Acting on recommendations of the Knight Commission, the FCC has hired former journalist and internet-entrepreneur Steven Waldman to head up “an agency-wide initiative to assess the state of media in these challenging economic times and make recommendations designed to ensure a vibrant media landscape.”

Watchdogs The Knight Commission, Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and others have been reporting on the dire straits of the journalism business these days and the need to search for new business models that can work in the internet age.

Waldman will join the Office of Strategic Planning and serve as Senior Advisor to the Chairman. He was one of the founders and hands-on executives of Beliefnet.com, a multi-faith Web site for religion and inspiration which was eventually sold to News Corporation.

“A strong consensus has developed that we’re at a pivotal moment in the history of the media and communications, because of game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Highly respected entities have called on the FCC to assess these issues. At such a moment, it is important to ensure that our polities promote a vibrant media landscape that furthers long-standing goals of serving the information needs of communities. The initiative is intended to identify the best ideas for achieving those goal, while recognizing that government must be scrupulous in abiding by the First Amendment and never dictating or controlling the content of the news or other communications protected by the First Amendment.”

“I’m excited by many of the new media’s innovations and, at the same time, concerned about the challenges facing American journalism, which potentially harm citizens’ ability to get information they need and hold leaders accountable,” said Waldman. “Most solutions will come from the private and nonprofit sectors. But government rules already affect the media landscape in profound ways so it’s imperative that we both vigorously protect the First Amendment and determine which media policies make sense, which don’t. Unwise government policies can undermine business models and hinder innovation. Smart policy can help businesses, facilitate innovation, and ensure a thriving media marketplace.”

RBR-TVBR observation: Broadcasters are well aware that the key to success is quality local content. But quality local content is expensive to produce. The FCC cannot simply issue an edict saying “Thou shalt produce quality news” and expect it to happen.

The FCC should start out by taking steps to help news operations currently in existence to simply survive. We’re starting to see signs that it may start getting a helping hand from an improving economy as early as next year.

Do not – we repeat – do not come up with new rules designed to promote localism that come with an operator-borne price tag.

Let’s take a look at a rule on the books now – maintaining the program/issues list for the public file. For starters, it’s a futile requirement. No broadcaster is required to do any local issues programming; indeed many of them already operating on the edge simply couldn’t do it without going out of business. Since there is no requirement, there is no possible punishment for a station when a government official thinks its program/issue file is lacking merit. That’s what you think? Great – so what?

On the other hand, every minute and every dime spent putting together the program/issues list is a minute and a dime not spent putting together a local issues program.

So it’s a pointless exercise that ultimately makes if harder for the broadcaster to do what the FCC is trying to encourage.

If we were running a station and had an excellent track record on this type of programming, we’d actually keep the list for promotional purposes. But there’s no need for it to be a requirement.

If you require a body in a station 24 hours a day, FCC, you’re going to get A) somebody in there alone making minimum wage for eight of those hours; B) or your going to have a station that spends those eight hours off air; or C) you could at least have those hours filled by a station admittedly on autopilot. Which is best? It’s C, right?

Just saying, FCC, before you go whole hog down this path.