FCC media report shows how interest in government subsidies for local journalism fizzled
There is a lot to like in the Federal Communication Commission's exhaustive, 478-page study of shortfalls and potential solutions in media.
I'm particularly glad Steve Waldman, who oversaw the report, and his collaborators rejected an assortment of false dichotomies. Old vs. new media, professional or citizen reporters, commercial or nonprofit? "Obviously we need both," the report says.
In a similar spirit, Waldman concludes that the proliferation of digital news outlets "masks a shortage of reporting ...This illusion of bounty risks making us passive."
Good enough. But when Waldman and company get to what the FCC or Congress can do about deteriorating local accountability reporting, they pretty much punt. Better broadband access, favorable tax treatment of news nonprofits, better digital disclosure of government data and regulatory filings — most of it is familiar stuff.
There are a couple of provocative ideas, such as redirecting to local media the massive, $1-billion-a-year federal ad spend for such things as legal notices and military recruiting. But it is not so clear who could make that happen.
Maybe this outcome could have been foretold. In pulling together some background material, I realized it had been. When Waldman posted FCC's announcement of the project and his appointment to lead it on his blog in October 2009, the first commenter, Charles Cosimano, wrote:
"Good luck playing hopscotch in the bureaucratic minefield that is the FCC. If you look at what they are really saying, it is, 'We are faced with media that we cannot hope to regulate and we have to find creative ways to explain to various pressure groups that they are wasting their time trying to get us to do the impossible.'"
Over the 18 months since, the notion that the FCC would adopt the report faded, and it was simply presented as an informational study, not necessarily the agency's view. The title was changed from "The Future of Media" to "The Information Needs of Communities" (echoing an earlier Knight Commission report).
In speeches and a visit to Poynter, Waldman suggested that the FCC's regulatory power was mainly in broadcast and that the report would tilt that way.
In fact, though, the report gives equal attention to the losses in newspapers' reporting capacity. And as my colleague Al Tompkins' account of Thursday's FCC meeting makes clear, the recommendations for television and radio are small steps forward, too, such as requiring better disclosure of pay-to-play coverage.
How we got here
The federal interest in weakened journalism and its impact on democracy started in May 2009 with a Senate hearing sponsored by John Kerry (D-Mass.) and a smaller event in the House put together by Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). At the time, newspaper advertising was in free fall. The Rocky Mountain News had closed and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had ceased printing, and it seemed quite possible that The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle would fail.
When the Federal Trade Commission held its initial workshop in December 2009, the backpedaling had already begun. As both a participant and an observer, I was struck by remarks of FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who artfully framed the problem but by no means promised government help.
As Leibowitz concisely put it, there remains "an open question whether the changes to newsgathering amount to 'creative destruction' or just plain destruction."
Waxman, personally open to some subsidy to boost local news efforts, complained that there was no consensus within the media community about whether government help would be in the public interest.
That effectively took off the table a proposal, first voiced by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in a study for Columbia's School of Journalism, that a pool of money be set aside and distributed state-by-state as grants to support quality, local reporting.
The discussion had deteriorated further at a subsequent FTC workshop six months later. In the spring of 2010, FTC staff had prepared a draft paper cataloging various recommendations it had heard, including several for direct subsidies. Critics jumped on that, reporting the subsidy idea as the FTC's own recommendation. The FTC issued a press release complaining of "misinformation" from critics, and one of the FTC commissioners kicked off the workshop by defensively repeating the point.
A year later, the FTC report remains unfinished, release date to be determined.
At those two workshops, several executives of public radio and television argued that if federal money for local reporting would be forthcoming, they should get it because they have an existing infrastructure.
Since then, public broadcasting has come under attack by the Republican-led House and has scrambled to hold on to existing levels of support.
Early on, the Newspaper Association of America said thanks-but-no-thanks to any government funding, citing First Amendment concerns. I, however, didn't think that an arms-length fund for reporting was ridiculous on its face. Much of the federal support for scientific research is distributed on that model, and vigorously democratic countries like France and Sweden underwrite newspaper circulation.
Yet I have come to believe that for now, the newspaper industry and other legacy media need to chart their own path to stability, and that market forces will help identify winners in the new media space. Foundations, other philanthropists and citizen donors assess rigorously and quickly what is worth continued support.
Bigger governmental initiatives may make sense, but later — if the shortfall in local reporting gets markedly worse and a constructive intervention opportunity becomes more evident. Perhaps a well-documented and wide-ranging report on problems and possibilities is the best the two agencies can do for now.