Friday, June 10, 2011

Not enough pens in the Foxhouse?

US vs. The Wired World
FCC’s new report “The Information Needs of Communities,” released Thursday, surveys the current state of the American media and finds “a shortage of local, professional accountability reporting.” The report’s lead author, Steve Waldman, argues that the expansion and proliferation of online media outlets have not yet made up for newspaper staffs and budgets—especially in the area of local news.

As quickly as online media has grown in the past decade and a half in the US, it might be surprising to see how Americans fare when compared to the rest of the world. Earlier in the report, Waldman notes that while almost all Americans have easy access to TV, only about 55 percent of Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home. This is a problem, he says, because:

If traditional media companies devote fewer resources to accountability journalism, it becomes more important for all Americans to have access to a full range of comparable resources online. Those that have low quality newspapers or TV and limited Internet access end up with less useful news. Conversely, greater broadband penetration will make it more likely that local digital media efforts will succeed.

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

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.

FCC: Local News Collapsing Thanks to the Internet
“A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little,” the study says.

Though government has a role to play and should consider creating public affairs cable channels like C-SPAN or ease tax rules for non-profit news organizations, the study implies that there are limits to its involvement in news-gathering.

While it expresses concern about the diminishing media landscape, the report says that some safeguards are antiquated and need to be swept away. In particular, the study says that commission should do away with the last remnants of the “Fairness Doctrine,” a policy that mandates broadcasters present balanced reports on political issues. The commission said that the rule is largely ignored, and that it has the potential to violate Free Speech rights.
Guambat disagrees. Fox has embraced the notion, to give its mockery of the ideal more potency and poignancy.

What We Need for a Local Reporting Renaissance
Among the study's many observations and recommendations, the irony of a reporting shortage in the face of "breathtaking media abundance" can't be missed. The study blames the market, noting how cutbacks in newsroom budgets mean fewer reporters which inevitably leaves stories unreported. The "ripple effects" of less information reverberate on a national scale as local television reporters and national news outlets often rely on local reporting as a source. Social media evangelists would be quick to argue that the original reporting is there, hiding in Facebook feeds and buried on Twitter. In the era of abundance somebody is surely saying something about the goings on at town hall or the corrupt local business man. The media just needs better curators, someone to filter the noise and aggregate the useful information. There's not an absence of local reporting, they may argue, there's an evolution in method that the local news industry just needs to figure out.

Ken Doctor, a blogger for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, explains that that local news and aggregation are currently engaged in canceling each other out: "the aggregators have often laughed ... at those silly people who sink millions into creating local news, or content of any kind, while creators have joked ... that some day those aggregators will have to turn out the lights, when all the content creators have gone bankrupt and out of business."

At the end of the day, hard-nosed reporting, especially local reporting, is hard work, despite the presence of Blogger, Facebook and Twitter in connecting people and disseminating information. According to The New York Times's preview, the FCC report recommends government help, "making actual in-the-field reporting a part of the curriculum at journalism schools, steering more government advertising money toward local instead of national media and changing the tax code to encourage donations to nonprofit media organizations."

Another idea is for aspiring journalists to redirect their dreams away from New York City's saturated mediasphere and towards local papers where they can make a difference and be small-town heroes. We'll turn to Gawker's Hamilton Nolan for a rallying cry. We can't really tell how sarcastic Hamilton is being, but it's a good cry either way.

With a little gumption, you can quite easily become the most important media figure in Standard Small Town, USA, at the age of 22. In New York, you will never important (sorry). You'll also be doing the fine small town folks an actual public service by covering the city council meetings and poking into the misdeeds of all the assholes on the school board or whatever. You'll be able to write stories that have a concrete impact that you'd never achieve by recapping TV shows or whatever awful thing you'll end up doing when you come to NYC with journalistic aspirations. And when the profit model for online local news finally gets itself together, you'll be right there, already entrenched, with your own tiny little media empire.

Good luck. We'll be cheering you on, from New York. reacts to FCC report: We’re filling the gaps in local journalism



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