Report: Fewer reporters bad for communities

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By Steve Key

A recent Federal Com­munications Commission report sounds an alarm that many in the newspaper industry have long recognized.

According to the report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age,” serious problems have arisen in part because of the digital revolution.

“Most significant among them: in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” the report says.

With traditional business models for newspapers disrupted, roughly 13,400 newsroom positions have disappeared in just the past four years, the FCC notes.

The 400-plus page report, written by a group headed by Steve Waldman, senior advisor to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, recognizes the potential harm to communities that a lack of reporting resources causes.

“This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability – more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools and other serious community problems,” the report says. “The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism – going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy – is in some cases at risk at the local level.”

The report is thin on solutions to the situation. Among broad recommendation principles are:

• Greater government transparency will enable both citizens and reporters to more effectively monitor powerful institutions and benefit from public services. With more government data on the Internet, professional and citizen journalists can increase watchdog reporting with fewer resources currently available, according to the FCC premise.

• Existing government advertising spending should be targeted more toward local media. The report notes that the federal government spent $1.6 billion in advertising over three years, primarily on national media platforms. The FCC suggests that those advertising messages could be effectively disseminated through local media outlets – TV and newspapers – through current ad placement networks.

I won’t hold my breath waiting for this to happen. It would require federal government bureaucrats to direct ad agencies to deviate from their comfort zones and design ad campaigns that would take advantage of local newspaper and TV strengths rather than the ease of national campaigns.

The bureaucrats, I expect, don’t care about helping newspapers afford to hire more journalists.

• The report also touches on public notice advertising, but it’s a mixed message.

On one hand, the report says recent attempts by state legislators to move public notice advertising to government-run websites “is potentially harmful to local news media, and it can leave those who lack Internet access out of the information loop.”

On the other hand, the report suggests relief for tight government budgets can be accomplished by posting public notices on government websites and “paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site.”

The second view misses the point that government websites draw fewer visitors than there are newspaper readers, meaning fewer people will see them.

No one in the newspaper industry is depending on a federal solution to solve the newspaper business-model predicament.

Let’s work together to increase revenue and therefore reporting at the local level.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.