Limited FCC role seen in rejuvenating local news output


The new FCC report that started out as a look at the future of media and wound up being called “Impact of technology on the information needs of communities” says that in many ways it is a great time for the art of journalism. Policy recommendations were limited with the First Amendment in mind, and were shaded toward the deregulatory side particularly suggestions to ditch the localism proceeding and abandon enhanced disclosure.

The report’s lead creator Steve Waldman had kind words for radio, television, newspaper and the internet, but in the end concluded that the contraction tradition journalism has suffered has not really been picked on via new media.

Waldman said that newspapers still deserve a lot of credit, and at one point said that newspaper reporting was the “iron core” of the entire journalistic universe, providing the basic source for stories appearing on most other journalism venues.

He also said it was false to suggest that newspaper’s problems were caused by failure to take the internet into account. He said that newspapers are one of the primary sources for online news – the problem is that losses of print dollars are only being replaced with digital dimes.

Radio is booming as a news source, said Waldman, but pretty much only on the national level. The number of full-time local news stations has dropped from about 50 to 30 since the 80s, and local news is not available on most radio stations.

He had great things to say about television – it remains the #1 source of local news, and many stations still take the time to produce investigative stories. However, even here, there is a lack of coverage on local civic matters, the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is still common, and he said at a minority of stations, advertisers are given too much influence over news coverage.

He noted that technology has offered television new opportunities. In particular, the advent of the one-man-band – a reporter/videographer hybrid – gives the reporter increased mobility and allows the station to replace crew members with more reporters. However, in most cases, crew members are not being replaced, but being let go as a cost-cutting measure.

Waldman said there is an abundance of news online – in-depth reporting, openings for citizens to contribute, all types of general and specialty news websites – but still, the vast bulk of the actual reporting is starting at old-fashioned newspapers.

Briefly discussing the Fairness Doctrine, Waldman said they concluded it would damage the production of journalism and chill speech, and should not be reinstituted. He said that the discovery of shards of the Doctrine still on the books was a surprise and agreed that they should be swept away.

On the public interest obligation, Waldman said the initial bargain was that taxpayers provide the airwaves to broadcasters, and in return broadcasters agree to serve the public interest. 100K license renewals have been granted, give or take, and only four have ever been denied on public interest concerns; that’s zero for the last 30 years.

An example of the problem is the issues/programs list that is supposed to be in the public file. It’s a very vague requirement, and there are very many ways broadcasters choose to fill this file. Stations really don’t know what’s expected of them. The real dilemma is that you have a need, but you also have a First Amendment. Makes it almost impossible to craft policy, and in short, this system is broken.

One way to move ahead is to get rid of the paper public file and put it on the internet, where people can actually see it. At the same time, we’d get rid of some burdensome items.

Other recommendations: Terminate the localism proceeding (which includes possibilities like 24-hour staffing requirements, establishing citizen advisory boards and comprehensive programming logs). Another suggestion is to finish off the Fairness Doctrine once and for all.

And replace enhanced disclosure with a streamlined, web-based on-line form where broadcasters maintain a short list of specific important information, including news-sharing arrangements, sponsorship identification, and other things.

The FCC should agree to the proposal that commercials that do not receive CPB money may use up to 1% of the time to raise money for charities (reporting these activities online).

Waldman thinks every state should have its own version of C-SPAN so that citizens have access to information about their own local government. Congressional incentives could help make this possible.

The federal government does a lot of advertising, said Waldman, and he thinks less of it should go through national media platforms and much more of it should go to support local news outlets. Obviously, it must achieve the government’s goal, but this should be possible much of the time and it would be a shot in the arm for local media, and by extension, local news coverage.

Waldman wants to make sure non-profit sector is free to innovate and continue to participate in the process. Philanthropists, foundations and individual donors should consider non-profit journalism outlets when considering where they will spend their money.

He added that local media, including LPTV and LPFM, should be protected; broadband must be universally accessible; and a tax certificate program pertaining to FCC license transactions should be reinstituted.