There’s a lot to digest in the report to the FCC out this week on whether communities are getting the news they need as the news industry has contracted.
Several of the suggestions made in the project — headed by former journalist Steve Waldman — include bringing back the minority tax certificate to diversify media ownership; placing a station’s public file online; and giving the Corporation for Public Broadcasting more flexibility in the types of programming and entities it can fund.
Other suggestions: Every state should have a “State-SPAN” following the C-SPAN model, so the public can watch government debates and hearings. The federal government should consider directing some of its advertising spending towards local media. The FCC should eliminate burdensome rules such as the Fairness Doctrine as well as end the localism proceeding, in which staffing stations 24/7 was under consideration.
Waldman’s group, which began is work in 2010, interviewed about 600 people for the project, including reporters, editors, scholars and foundation types.
In the FCC meeting Thursday, Waldman said that the news industry has contracted during the tough economy and the report concludes that “most media are vibrant, yet there are serious issues.” FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Robert McDowell took issue with that characterization; both said media are hurting and that this trend has been clearly visible for several years.
Newspapers found “its dimes being replaced by digital pennies” as print subscriptions dropped and online ads were not replacing the lost revenue.
All newsroom staff levels — radio, TV and print — are down. The median number of newspeople employed in commercial radio newsrooms is one, and that’s been true for quite a few years, Waldman said.
In radio especially, the all-news format is expensive. In the mid-1980s there were 50 all-news radio stations in the U.S.; now there are 30, according to the findings.
The upshot of thousands of newsroom jobs lost is that reporters are writing fewer stories, relying more on press releases, and they feel like hamsters, said Waldman. With “hamsterization,” reporters have added a second beat to their primary coverage areas and also write for the Web — and sometimes shoot video too.
Civic coverage, especially of statehouses and local government meetings, is down, the group found. Though hyper-local websites have tried to fill that gap, it’s not enough, according to the findings.
Yet, for all the effort, McDowell said the 300-plus page document is just a report with no binding effect.
While “the government should keep its heavy hands off journalism,” McDowell, a Republican, suggested that the commission “do something with this report” and urged his colleagues to “get going on that.” He noted that both his parents had been part of the profession.
Copps, a Democrat, suggested the agency ask the public what they think of their news, called for hearings and urged action on the issue before the end of the year. He is expected to leave the Portals by year-end as his latest term expires.
The report is here (PDF).
— Leslie Stimson