Don’t berate yourself for missing the release of a study the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released late last week. As of this morning, Google News reports only 13 stories in total. Most of the stories were based on a New York Times article; evidently the FCC released the study to the Times early, a frequent occurrence which often makes sense.
The 478-page study, titled “The Information Needs of Communities,” demonstrates that the amount of news reported is shrinking rapidly, even as the number of news outlets is proliferating. The report seems to supply little if any original research, but analyzes a large number of recent studies and an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence. The findings reveal that far less original reporting goes on than 10 years ago, with local coverage especially lacking:
- Newspaper newsrooms have lost about 13,400 positions in the past four years.
- Between 2006 and 2009, newspapers cut the amount they collectively spent on reporting each year by a $1.6 billion.
- Over the past 10 years, reporting has shrunk significantly in the following areas: state government, investigative, environmental. In addition, there is much less reporting done on the significance of national policy on the local community.
As a study of the city of Baltimore released a year ago by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows, newspapers provide most of the original coverage, with other media usually reporting what they read in the newspaper or Associated Press. Pew points out that newspapers account for 50% of original reporting, with TV accounting for another 30%, but as the FCC study suggests, much TV news is about crime and very little about politics, government or the economy.
The FCC study does an excellent job in describing the proliferation of new media, virtually all of it Internet based, including on-line versions of traditional media, on-line media doing original reporting or aggregating other sources, blogs and social media.
We thus have an increase in media and a decrease in reported news. What’s filling the gap? The FCC report does a less than stellar job in stating what the hundreds of thousands of new media outlets are feeding us, so I thought I would do it:
- Opinion pieces, such as this very blog.
- “Citizen’s reporting,” which is news reported by amateur journalists or passers-bye with cameras. The FCC report does a good job of analyzing this phenomenon, both the amateurs who do investigative reporting and the citizen snapshots that end up on newspaper websites. The report admits, however, that “citizen’s reporting” can never replace professional journalism.
- Gotcha stories, such as when Sarah Palin tries to rewrite history, and YouTube/social media embarrassments.
- Celebrity and mass entertainment news. I opened this piece by mentioning that Google New reported 13 mentions of the FCC study. On the day it was released, Google News reported approximately 24,000 media outlets doing stories on Lady Gaga.
- How-to stories, primarily related to relationships, shopping, finances, child-rearing, fitness and dieting.
- Corporate shilling for products and services, some of which businesses pay for as if it were advertising and some of which stems from the need to fill the news and the readiness with which corporate PR types are able and willing to help.
The FCC study rightly proclaims that “the independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned—going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy—is in some cases at risk at the local level.” I guess the panel of experts, led by former journalist Steven Waldman, hasn’t read the New York Times or heard NPR lately—national and international news is also suffering. The decline in reporting has occurred at all levels of the news, as the FCC study itself documents, so the risk inherent of having an uninformed citizenry exists on every level.
The report’s recommendations to confront this problem make me imagine a physician who proposes to cure an allergic reaction to peanuts by feeding the patient more peanuts. The peanut in this case is the unregulated free market. Remember that many more companies use to own our TV and radio stations and our newspapers, because until the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the industry, there used to be strict limits to how many and what types media outlets a single company could own. Fewer owners naturally leads to a consolidation of resources, which we have seen most dramatically in radio, where a small number of relatively right-wing owners have largely replaced local news talk shows and local news with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and their ilk.
For example, the FCC study recommends that “nonprofit media need to develop more sustainable business models, especially through private donations.” To help, the study proposes giving tax breaks for donating to nonprofit media. But who has the most money to donate? Rich folk and corporations, who will thus be able to influence nonprofit reporting. Of course some would say that rich folk and corporations have always controlled for-profit media. True enough, but with so few reporters and so few media owners, the problem is far worse today than in prior decades.
If the FCC report really wanted to address the problem of a decline in original reporting, it would have advocated a return to the days when no single corporate entity could own so many media. It would also call for raising the federal budget for support of public broadcasting and nonprofit news media, particularly to support local news reporting. It might have also proposed rules that require media to more prominently tell us when advertisers are paying for the story or when corporations provide the story as a video news release or an article.
Some of the other recommendations that the FCC report advocates make a lot of sense:
- Use the Internet to create greater government transparency so citizens can directly monitor institutions.
- Spend more government advertising, such as armed forces recruitment, on local media.
- Keep the Internet open and work towards achieving universal access to broadband Internet.
- Take into account historically underserved communities when crafting rules and regulations.
All well and good, but none will encourage the news media to report more news.