They were more like magazine articles. My main news experience was in print news magazines. When you were doing a big cover story on a huge topic and you didn’t have a lot of time, you switched into this system method. You have reporters all over the place and they write what were called reporting memos. They were not really meant to be camera-ready things, but they were really detailed and included all the interviews and thoughts that a particular reporter would have on a particular slice. Then they’d all come into headquarters and someone would stitch them together. To some extent, we did that. I tried to do some research in every area myself, so that I would have a nuanced feel for each topic and not be in a position where I had to rely just on a memo.

We added to that the normal tools of the FCC. We put out a public notice and we got more than a thousand comments. Some of them were two hundred pages. When we say comments, they’re not Tweets. We had a couple of hearings and then there was a literature review.

We weren’t the first ones to tackle this topic. We would not have been able to do this report without the work that Pew had done, and Nieman, and Columbia, and the Knight Foundation. A lot of the examples people are pulling out as examples of our great research was not our research at all, it was Pew or Nieman or someone like that.

It’s very clearly cited though.

Absolutely. The word “Pew” appears more than the word “the.”
There were areas where we thought there hadn’t been as much research done. There, we hired reporters and did research. Local TV news, for example.

As you say, there have been so many of these “future of news” reports and tomes. Is there one or two you can point to as being he most valuable, from which you drew the most information?

Obviously ours! [Laughing] They each have different strengths and they each had slightly different missions. I think the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Citizens in a Democracy made a really important contribution by saying that this isn’t just about media. In the new world, people have different ways of getting information, including not using media. They were really the ones who highlighted the point that you have to look at things like government transparency, government databases, the role of libraries, schools, and things like that. The name of our report at the end was “The Information Needs of Communities.” It had initially been “The Future of Media and the Information Needs of Communities.” For shorthand, we had mostly referred to it early on as “future of media,” but as we got into it and became more conscious of the other parts of the ecosystem, we came to the conclusion that the new title was a more inclusive term that includes media but also includes things like government disclosure and putting data out, which ends up being an important part of the riddle.

The Downie-Schudson report really nailed it in terms of the focus on certain types of reporting and being very clear-headed about reporting as opposed to numbers of outlets or content volume. That’s an important distinction and something we emphasized a lot in our report, too.

Then the Pew study of Baltimore was a very important study. [The study showed a marked lack of original reporting in local news and a prevalent tendency to reprint or repackage information that was already reported.] They did a content analysis that looked at the question: What is the underlying source of some of the reporting for these stories? It’s perhaps the most misunderstood thing about the modern media landscape—with the sense that we have this tremendous abundance, how could there be a shortage of anything?

It struck me that the report is a balance of optimism and pessimism, or at least a sobering acknowledgment of the challenges. But ultimately it concludes on an optimistic note—that should the suggested changes be adopted, this could be the best media system we’ve ever had. Are you ultimately more optimistic?

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.