Heavy On Problems, Light On Solutions: The FCC Report Has Landed

A quick look at the "disappointing" recommendations

In some three hundred and sixty odd pages, the FCC’s long-awaited Future of News “Information Needs of Communities” report outlines the crises facing our industry in excruciating, painstaking detail. Similar detail is lacking in its recommendations on how we dig out.

That, at least, is likely to characterize many of the reactions to the whopper report that the FCC unleashed at an open meeting today. Head author Steve Waldman’s tome is a meticulously researched thing—one of the most substantial syntheses of media doom-and-gloom data you’re likely to find—and ultimately concludes that something needs to be done to bolster the resources in place holding local and state governments and civic bodies accountable. The concern, and rightfully so, is about undervalued, under-resourced, struggling local news operations. It’s stirring stuff.

But the back section of the report, where Waldman and his co-authors list recommendations for repair, feels very tepid at first glance. There are no bold ideas of the kind Steve Coll suggested in the pages of our very own magazine. There are very few concrete ideas at all. Government certainly isn’t expected to lift a heavy finger—“government is not the main player in this drama,” says Waldman. The theme seems to be to hold a steady course, loosen up the system, put a lot of information online, and hope foundations are willing to do some hard work.

Here is a paragraph from the report that characterizes the approach. Concerned, optimistic, non-committal.

We offer no magic bullet or magic app. Rather, government policy changes should focus on three primary goals: increasing transparency, making better use of the public’s existing resources, and removing obstacles to innovation—or, in the words of the National Religious Broadcasters, “fertiliz[ing]the conditions under which the media does its work.” With a terrain more hospitable to local media innovation, the private sector—both for-profit and non-profit entities—can increase the production of local programming, including accountability reporting. The resulting media system could be the best the nation has ever had.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps might have said it best, speaking after Waldman made his presentation: “The policy recommendations… don’t track the diagnosis.”

Already, industry bodies are raising discontented voices. In a statement shot out over e-mail this afternoon, Free Press CEO and President Craig Aaron said, “…at first glance it appears to be a major disappointment. The report discusses many important ideas, but where the FCC actually has the power to help local communities, the agency abdicates its responsibility in the areas. Worse yet, instead of striking a bold path forward, the FCC chairman appears to be backing away from the positive, though baby steps made by his Republican predecessors on the issues of competition, localism and diversity.”

We expect to hear more of that at a panel tomorrow at Columbia’s J-School featuring Dean Nicholas Lemann, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibarguen, and Waldman.

What exactly are these recommendations? You can find them in the document embedded below this post. But here is a brief summarized sample of some key suggestions, using the FCC’s own subheads. (And note, as commissioner McDowell did today, that these are simply suggestions—more than tepid, they’re unbinding.)

Emphasize Online Disclosure as a Pillar of FCC Media Policy

As a number of report previews noted yesterday, Waldman et al have recommended that, to solve the tension between the First Amendment limits on the government’s ability to more aggressively regulate and the requirement that broadcasters serve the community, the FCC shift its emphasis towards greater transparency, online. Instead of filing cumbersome quarterly paper reports detailing their programming, broadcasters should post disclosures of ownership and donors online. The idea is to give citizens the opportunity to more easily hold broadcasters accountable. As Copps noted, there is no mention of exactly what kind of action citizens could take with this information in hand.

Make It Easier for Citizens to Monitor Their Government by Putting More Proceedings, Documents and Data Online

“…every state should have a vibrant public affairs network, a state-based C-SPAN,” recommends the report. With state government spending up, and the number of reporters covering state government down, the argument is that SPANS will allow citizens the opportunity for some DIY accountability-holding.

A further recommendation: as will be expected of broadcasters, “governments at all levels should put far more data and information online, and do it in ways that are designed to be most useful.” This will have an employment effect, and an effect on the everyday work of journalists—“entrepreneurs can create new businesses and jobs based on distributing, shaping or analyzing this data. It will enable reporters to unearth stories in a day or two that might have previously taken two months.”

Consider Targeting Current Government Advertising More Toward Local Media Businesses

Keeping with the report’s findings that it is local news that needs the most repair, the authors suggest that government advertising money—for things such as army recruitment, census compliance—be directed more strongly towards local broadcasters. In 2005, the report notes, the government spent $1 billion on such advertising and it generally went to big national entertainment media. Float this down to the local level and it will be a healthy injection.

Make It Easier for Nonprofit Media to Develop Sustainable Models

The report puts a large bulk of the responsibility for saving the news media on nonprofits, and seeks to make it easier to those nonprofits to operate effectively. Complicated sections of the tax code that seem to arbitrarily decide what news operations qualify as nonprofit need to be cleared up, argues the report. In this same section, the report authors praise the work of journalism schools that have adopted a “medical residency” model—having students actually report as they learn how to—and suggests that foundations and philanthropists funnel money into such programs.

It’s here too that the authors address the CPB, issuing one of the report’s strongest statements: “this would be precisely the wrong time to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” One of the more specific recommendations regarding the CPB is that none of its beneficiaries should be allowed to have more than 15 percent of their revenues come from it. The idea being that the limit would prevent the state from exerting pressure on the media.

Ensure that Broadband is Widespread Enough to Fuel Digital Media Innovation

Here the authors make the argument for universal broadband—both to provide access to the community and to provide a stronger business base for the media. Universal access means larger potential audiences, after all, and more reason to innovate. The FCC report also suggests that the government “consider the central role of public libraries” here, as, rather than be made obsolete by new technologies, the library has become central to them: a place where the poor and unplugged can utilize and learn to utilize modern communications technologies that will keep them better informed.


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