FCC Journalism Report Is a Voluminous Disappointment

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.


Two Recent WIkiLeaks Books Offers Context and Detail on Controversial Media Innovator

I’ve finished two recent books on WikiLeaks, and can recommend them both.

The first is by Micah Sifry, whose work has long been at the cutting edge of the intersection of technology and policy. (Note: He’s a friend.) In his new book, WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, he does a terrific journalistic service: He connects the dots and offers context.

The book, as the title suggests, is less about WikiLeaks — though there’s plenty of nuanced discussion about that controversial media innovator — than about the emerging information ecosystem. Transparency is being forced upon opaque institutions and practices. On balance this is a positive development, but the downsides are not trivial.

If you want to know why WikiLeaks matters so much, how it fits into that wider ecosystem and why these developments are so important to the future of politics and policy, you won’t find a better place to start than this book.

You’ll also do well to check out The Age of WikiLeaks: From Collateral Murder to Cablegate (and Beyond) by the Nation magazine’s Greg Mitchell. Mitchell has been a relentless curator of all-things-WikiLeaks on his Nation blog for months now, and his knowledge of the operation is correspondingly encyclopedic.

This book is almost entirely about WikiLeaks and the site’s founder, Julian Assange. There’s plenty of meat and analysis, and not too much speculation. Mitchell gives us a straightforward and helpful look at a phenomenon that (among others) anyone involved in media needs to understand — especially the professional journalists who’ve been so ambivalent if not contemptuous about something that is part of their own ecosystem even if they don’t realize it.

One of the more interesting elements of Mitchell’s book is the way he’s publishing it. He’s a self-publisher, and has been experimenting with different prices with the Amazon Kindle version, and has already published a second edition. (He makes me feel almost slothful by comparison…)

When I come up for air on some work I have to finish, I plan to read the Guardian’s book on WikiLeaks as well as a volume by a former insider. Meanwhile, as I said at the top, I recommend these books for anyone who wants to go deep on WikiLeaks and what it means.

Foundational Thinking

in his latest “Carnival of Journalism” roundup — blog posts by various folks ruminating on a journalism-related topic — our friend David Cohn wonders what the major foundations should do to push innovation in the field. His work at Spot.us is funded by one of them, the Knight Foundation, and he’s currently a Fellow in a program sponsored by the Reynolds Foundation at the University of Missouri, so he has a more than average interest in this topic. A few thoughts:

First, a disclosure: The Knight News Challenge has been a key funder of a major portion of my work in the past several years. I wasn’t the applicant for the grant that paid part of my salary, but as a two-time rejectee for ideas of my own that I’ve put into the News Challenge hopper, I feel safe to say that the program resembles a lot of startups: It’s ambitious, ambiguous, chaotic, and constantly evolving.

If I were to change any single element of the News Challenge it would be this: I’d put at least half of the money not into grants but into equity investments in for-profit companies. To make this happen, the foundation would partner with a small group of highly qualified angel investors — people who cared at least as much about the future of news as returns on investment. Together we’d raise a fund that could offer seed and angel capital to digital media entrepreneurs whose projects showed the kind of promise that could lead to serious returns.

Knight, Reynolds or any other foundation that cares about the future of journalism could also to more to make sense of the landscape, and to connect innovators with people who can use the innovations. Here’s what I believe we need in that regard, as I discussed in Chapter 11 of Mediactive: a small but highly targeted think tank.

Corporate R&D operations try to pick winners while making relatively “safe” bets. This is the inverse.

Imagine a small team of, for lack of a better word, “connectors.” They’ll identify interesting ideas, technologies and techniques—business models as well as editorial innovations. Then they’ll connect these projects with people who can help make them part of tomorrow’s journalistic ecosystem.

Where will these projects come from? Everywhere: universities, corporate labs, open-source repositories, startups, basements, you and me.

Part of this is about connecting dots. I take it for granted—based on my own experiences and observations over three decades—that a large percentage of those journalistically valuable ideas, technologies and techniques will come from projects whose creators have no journalistic intent. The experiments are taking place inside and outside of companies, inside and outside the news industry (mostly outside), in Silicon Valley and out in the larger world.

Who can help the connectors spread innovation into the larger ecosystem? Among others:

  • Traditional news organizations. This isn’t to suggest they should not invest in some internal R&D (though most do little, if any). However, I would suggest that they devote a bigger part of that spending to buy or license other people’s innovations.
  • Investors outside the journalism business. Angel investors and venture capitalists think “entertainment” when they think about media. They may be willing to place some of their high-risk, high-reward bets on projects that meet community information needs if they can be persuaded that they are based on serious business models.
  • Non-media enterprises. More and more corporations and non-profits of all stripes are creating media. If they can help support innovations that also serve journalistic purposes, everyone wins. If they can be persuaded of the value of applying journalistic principles to what they produce, so much the better.
  • Foundations. Some are spending a great deal of money now on new projects, but they’d get even more leverage by supporting the connectors.
  • Individual (or small-team) media creators who can invest only their time. An essential part of the connectors’ role would be to identify open-source and other such projects that regular folks or small teams can put to good community-information use.

What distinguishes the connectors?

First, they’ll understand technology at a reasonably deep level. It’s not necessary to be a programmer, but it’s vital to know how to a) ask the right questions of the right people, b) recognize cool technology when they see it, and c) have a sound sense of the difference between cool and useful.

Second, they’ll need to appreciate journalism’s essential role in society, and how the craft is changing. This means understanding fundamental principles, of course, but also the need to turn journalism from the lecture mode of the past to the conversational mode it needs to become.

Third, they’ll need a broad array of contacts in the technology, business, education, philanthropic, investor and other sectors—and the ability to have intelligent conversations with any of them.

Finally, they’ll need to be evangelists, selling all these people not just on the need to combine great ideas with journalism, but also the need to take risks in new areas.

The catalyzing opportunities here are fairly amazing, if we pull this off. It’ll require a team effort in the end, but it’s definitely worth the effort—because the payoff for journalism could easily dwarf the investment.

Note: I pitched this idea to Knight some years ago, and didn’t even get to first base.