The FCC Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities delivered a comprehensive report yesterday addressing recent fundamental changes in the media landscape. The “Information Needs of Communities” report, produced by a group of journalists, scholars, media entrepreneurs, and government officials, reached a number of conclusions indicating that while technological advancements have improved public access to information, major deficiencies exist in contemporary news coverage. Specifically, the report found:
- An explosion in Internet-based reporting on “hyperlocal” news directed by citizen journalists. The report expects further public reliance on Internet news sources as these non-traditional outlets proliferate. The Working Group pushed for rapid universal broadband deployment to expand access to these new media sources in rural and underserved communities.
- A marked decline in “local accountability reporting” from tradition news organizations. The Working Group noted that the recent increase in media outlets failed to result in more stories focused on community issues. The report warns that the dearth of local overage will result in less government accountability, greater corruption, wasted taxpayer dollars, and other community detriments. As a result, the study recommends policymakers craft incentives for media organizations to establish a “state-based C-SPAN” system and allocate more of the federal government’s $1 billion advertising budget for local media outlets.
- Enhanced collaboration between commercial and non-profit media organizations, with synergies growing across media sectors. The report discovered increased diversification in non-profit media offerings, which the Working Group suggested should be supported through favorable tax reforms.
- The FCC should take action to put media disclosure information online for easier public access. The Working Group advocated streamlining programming disclosures and eliminating burdensome disclosure rules. The report also advised the agency to take steps to discourage “pay-for-play” arrangements where TV stations allow advertisers to influence content. The report calls for the online disclosure of these arrangements.
- The media industry would benefit from the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the termination of the FCC’s localism proceeding. The report also suggested the FCC re-assess the efficacy of the current satellite TV set-aside for educational programming.
Reaction from policymakers and media organizations to the report’s findings varied considerably. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps criticized the Working Group’s characterization of the media landscape as “vibrant,” considering the shrinking levels of local media coverage and the closure of many community news outlets. Chairman Julius Genachowski reiterated the agency’s concern with the growing “gap” between local news stories and other topics. The Media Access Project disparaged the report as a missed opportunity to set minimum public affairs program requirements on broadcasters.
In response, the American Society of News Editors denied the implication that newspapers abandoned investigative journalism and neglected local issue coverage. Broadcast associations such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association stated its members provide a wide array of local and regional programming and represent leaders in broadband deployment. Broadcasters also approved of the Working Group’s recommendation to terminate the localism proceeding and highlighted the report’s findings that broadcast ownership restrictions should be softened in smaller markets to allow successful outlets to rescue failing stations in their area.
The report represents a product of the Working Group’s ongoing two-year examination of the media industry. Whether and to what extent the recommendations might be adopted by the FCC remains to be seen.