So many things are disappointing about the FCC’s just-released future of media report that it’s tempting to write it off entirely. That would be a mistake.
Shallowness in research isn’t one of the problems. No one can accuse the working group (PDF), headed by Steve Waldman and 18 months in the making, of not doing some serious homework, with interviews, hearings and data collection.
A few traditional news organizations were favored with embargoed copies of the report ahead of time (Exhibit A of the problem), though after reading their articles I’m not sure if they did much more than skim it. In any event, my quick comments here — I hope to do more later on — are based on a fast read-through of the report, which bizarrely appears to be available on the FCC website only as a collection of PDFs, with no HTML version (Exhibit B). Happily, lots of folks, including Josh Stearns from the media reform organization Free Press, have posted it as an embeddable a Scribd document.
My initial reaction, as suggested at the top, is puzzlement at the working group’s missed opportunities.
The report’s main takeaway, from what I can see, is that local news is declining. That’s true, in part. No one can dispute the massive disinvestment in journalism by local newspapers and broadcasters in recent years. The rise of hyperlocal news has helped fill some gaps, but there’s no question that fewer paid journalists — at least ones working for organizations that try to provide news to the general public — are paying attention to local and state governments than before.
The report largely stays away from what many observers, including me, had feared. It does not ask for major government intervention in news. Whew. At the hearing where I spoke, more than a few people wanted just that kind of recommendation.
But there’s a caveat: It suggests steering what could ultimately be more than $1 billion in annual federal advertising spending (for such things as military recruitment) away from big media organizations to smaller, local ones. The can of worms this will open is fairly large, not least the political favoritism that is certain to pick winners in such a process. I guarantee, if this goes anywhere, that the dollars will flow to the companies that have the most clout on K Street, not the new media organizations that are doing the hardest work now to fill the gaps.
The report’s subtitle, “The changing media landscape in a broadband age,” highlights my biggest disappointment — its lack of serious recommendations regarding the real and growing broadband problem in the U.S. The authors insist that “Universal broadband and an open Internet are essential prerequisites for ensuring that the new media landscape serves communities well,” but their recommendations are utterly vague on how we can get there.
In Mediactive, I wrote that only one major government intervention makes sense:
only one that wouldn’t put government meddling squarely into the practice of journalism—an inevitable result of the direct subsidies being pushed by well-meaning but misguided media thinkers. It’s a subsidy for bandwidth: getting true broadband Internet access to as many people as possible, as some other nations in Europe and Asia have done.
The precedent in this case is the right one. Taxpayer-assisted infrastructure—especially the postal system and low rates for sending publications—helped create the newspaper business, and enabled a lot of other commerce. Let’s bring that logic forward to the early 21st century, and enable high-speed Internet access for all Americans, and a communications infrastructure for all competitors.
I’m not surprised that this idea went nowhere, just disappointed.
From what I can tell, the report gives short shrift to network neutrality, or rules guaranteeing users’ rights to select the media they want, not the media to which the broadband providers and their commercial partners want to give priority. The suggestion that new wireless services will solve the problem by adding competition is at best wishful thinking.
Maybe the working group is just recognizing reality. America’s leaders have made it clear that they do not consider it a taxpayer issue to ensure broadband access; they’ve stood by while the U.S. slides dramatically in world rankings of the most-connected nations. And they’ve increasingly shown hostility to the vital need for rules to ensure that average citizens, not corporate America, can make their own decisions. The journalism ecosystem of the future utterly depends on connectivity and net neutrality. Paying lip service to these notions doesn’t help.