March 7, 2017

Christopher Ali has spent a lot of time thinking about the future of local news.

Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University who’s almost done with a report on the future of small newspapers with co-author Damian Radcliffe.

He’s also the author of a new book, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place.” The book, from University of Illinois Press, takes a look at what it means to be local in an increasingly global world.

Ali spoke with Poynter over email about why we should care about regulation, what local means these days and what we can learn from his other research.

Regulation and policy are definitely not the sexiest things to write a book about. Why should people care about this? How does it impact them?

This is something that I often confront with my Media Policy and Law class at (the University of Virginia): how to make media policy sexy. My best answer is to paraphrase a former chair of the FCC, Nicholas Johnson. Johnson said that no matter what your first policy priority is — women’s rights, the environment, defense — you won’t achieve your goals without media policy.

It is through the media that other policy apparatuses are communicated. I would love it if one day media policy was seen on par with other policy disciplines. Until that time, however, check out John Oliver’s rant on net neutrality or the future of local journalism! If that’s not sexy, then I don’t know what is.

What do you mean by localism?

This is a tricky question, because localism is a term that is poorly defined in regulation in the three countries that make up my book. At the very least, localism has traditionally been thought to mean the requirement that local broadcasters — both television and radio stations – reflect their communities through local employees, local news, and a presence and investment in the community. In my book, however, I want to push us from thinking that localism has to be always about a specific geographic entity — a city, town, or village.

While localism should always have a connection to places, we need to remember that technology, especially broadcasting, has never respected the boundaries of cities. For instance, growing up in Winnipeg (100 miles from the U.S. border) we could receive television channels from North Dakota.

With that in mind, I ask in my book what happens to the concepts of “the local” or “localism” when we are so much more mobile than we used to be.

Moreover, what happens to localism when we factor in communities like ethnolinguistic groups. Can French media in Québec, for instance, be considered local?

Is news about Mexico local to a Mexican resident of Los Angeles? Lastly, we really need to ask how localism in media policy is being reshaped in an era of digital media. Localism used to be solely about broadcasting, but we are watching less and less conventional television. This begs the question: how should regulation keep up with how we consume local media? Is it relevant any longer? (Spoiler alert: I argue that it is more relevant now than ever!)

I argue that these questions have serious implications for how we regulated local media and how we assess local news, but regulators have yet to consider them in depth.

How does regulation fit into all of this?

One thing that I argue in my book is that regulators need to seriously ask the question: Is local news so important to our society that it should be provided regardless of how many people consume it? Should we put local news on par with museums, for instance, which we say have significant social benefits? I argue for a renewed mission in which regulators ensure that we have access to the news and information that is so vital to local life.

Furthermore, despite the fact that we live in an era of neoliberal capitalism, which promotes deregulation and a free market, regulators continue to have an important impact on local media. In Canada, for instance, the communications regulator — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — dictates how much local news a television station needs to air per week.

Here in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can’t mandate programming quotas as it would violate broadcasters’ First Amendment rights. It does, however, dictate how many stations one company can own in a single locality ensuring the diversity of local voices.

What needs to change?

A couple of things need to change if we are really serious about local media in the 21st century. First and foremost, we need to have a more inclusive conversation on the issue of local media. Right now, the conversation, if it takes place at all, seems confined to the major industry players like Comcast or the National Association of Broadcasters.

Public and community media organizations are certainly left out, as are indigenous and ethnolinguistic media organizations (like Telemundo or Univision). We need to broaden who is given a seat at the table and who is considered a policy actor.

Second, we need to think long and hard about what it means to be local in the digital age and the communication technologies that provide local media. Ofcom — the UK communications regulator — has actually been at the forefront of this conversation. In 2006, for instance, it released a report called “Digital Local” that outlined the different ways in which communities across the United Kingdom could benefit from a host of different platforms for local news — from community radio, to satellite, to broadcasting, and broadband.

Third, we need to reconsider how we fund and support local media, especially local news. If it is as important as we say it is, and by we I mean the public, the industry, and the government, than we are doing a poor job at supporting it.

In my book, I offer a number of suggestions such as looking at Canada’s tangible benefits package. This requires that when two media companies merge (which is happening at an alarming rate these days) that a percentage of the value of the merger goes to the Canadian Media Fund, which supports Canadian media. Why can’t we have a similar fund like that for local news in the Unites States? This is a question I raise in the conclusion of my book.

In the U.S., Free Press — a public interest group — has been at the forefront of advocating for a portion of the revenue derived from the spectrum auction be used to support local media. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with that.

Lastly, in terms of policy, I strongly believe that we need a unified and comprehensive local media policy framework going forward. This policy framework needs to recognize that our lives are no longer tethered to one single place. Moreover, it needs to be technologically neutral. This is crucial because previous policies only considered radio and television. Today, however, we turn to a number of platforms such as Facebook, websites and apps to provide us with local news and information.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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