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FCC Praises The Internet For News Evolution, Then Blames It For Crappy News Quality

An FCC report examining the state of news media across the U.S. has just been released, and boy, it’s a doozy. That Internet thing? It’s all very clever, but it’s costing journalist jobs and degrading news quality. (You don’t say!) The report does suggest one new way in which government might help local media outlets survive.

trash can in the middle of newsstands

The FCC’s “The Information Needs of Communities” report is out, examining the state of news sharing across the U.S., and boy, it’s a doozy. That Internet thing? It’s all very clever, but it’s costing journalist jobs and degrading news quality. You don’t say…

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The FCC’s working group for the Information Needs of Communities has been battling for a year to research and produce its new eponymous document, all 400-plus pages of it. The thrust of its conclusions can be guessed at from the report’s subtitle: “The changing media landscape in a broadband age.” And what does it actually conclude? News media is undergoing an extraordinary period of dynamic change and evolution, brought about by advances relating to the Internet. This is affecting TV and traditional newsprint journalism, which finds its traditional habits out of step with what new technology can offer.

This is great, in some ways. But, says the FCC, it has also caused serious problems–including lost jobs, and falling quality and quantity of what may be the most important form of news: Local news, which most closely affects the person reading it.

Here’re the choicest words to illustrate this from the report’s executive summary:

In most ways today’s media landscape is more vibrant than ever, offering faster and cheaper distribution networks, fewer barriers to entry, and more ways to consume information. Choice abounds.

That’s the good part. Then:

In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. 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 worries include “roughly 13,400 newspaper newsroom positions” lost in “just the past four years” creating “gaps in coverage that even the fast-growing digital world has yet to fill.” And the observation that an “abundance” of media outlets, meaning the huge array of news sources available online, plus what’s output by the newsprint and TV industries, doesn’t directly parallel an “abundance of reporting.”

So is the FCC attacking digital publications like FastCompany.com? Or is it whacking news aggregators likeThe Huffington Post, which is often accused of recycling the news (if not downright stealing it) without adding any value? Are newspapers guilty of ignoring the innovation going on all around them, like the guy patiently oiling his propeller-making machine while the hotshot one factory over-designs a jet aircraft? Should government intervene and defend the old guard for the sake of good news and the principles of the founding fathers (which, high-mindedly, is actually mentioned in the report)?

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You’ll have to wade through the hundreds of thousands of words of the complete text to fully understand the FCC’s position on all of these questions, but suffice it to say that it thinks “some current regulations” are “out of sync with the information needs of communities” in the digital era. But we should remember the “overriding premise that the First Amendment circumscribes the role government can play in improving local news.” Any sort of “sound policy” should understand that “government is simply not the main player in this drama.”

We could point out that bemoaning those thousands of jobs lost in traditional newsrooms have likely been far more than made up for in jobs in the digital news community, and that hyperlocal news reporting is now possible in ways never even imagined before, courtesy of blogging and social tools like Twitter. But we won’t. Instead we’ll note one innovative way the report does suggest that government could influence the situation: Government ads should be pushed through local, traditional news channels. For example, a military-recruitment campaign should have its ad dollars spent on a local TV news station and local newspaper instead of a big, commercial-centric channel like NBC.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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