The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released their long-awaited report on the future of the media in the United States. The study, “The Technology and Information Needs of Communities,” painted a grim picture for investigative journalism in our towns and cities. It finds that the quality and amount of in-depth local reporting has eroded, leaving government and corporate public relations with the power to control news content. According to the New York Times, “coverage of state governments and municipalities has receded at such an alarming pace that it has left government with more power than ever to set the agenda and have assertions unchallenged.”
Since its release, there have been a number of critiques within the media. The Columbia Journalism Review described the report as “disappointing” and “heavy on problems, light on solutions.” Joe Mullin of paidContent said that the report fell short since it did not take a stand by defending a particular government action that solves the local journalism crisis. The Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab said that report does not shed light on anything that has not already been discussed over the past couple of years; however, the report does suggest that the federal government could possibly direct advertising funds to local media outlets. According to The Hill, the report “encourages policymakers to see the benefits in behavioral advertising as a debate rages in Washington on how to regulate online tracking to protect the personal data of consumers.”
Kit Eaton of Fast Company said that the report praises the ingenuity of the internet, but then condones it by saying that it is responsible for the decline of investigative journalism and layoffs in newsrooms. Ars Technica pointed out the absurdness of the FCC to use the report to coin a new journalism phrase, “hamsterization,” referring to reduced newsroom staff levels and the new tasks that surviving staff now must takes on. This includes facing “rolling deadlines as they post to their newspaper’s website, before and after, writing print stories” in addition to blogging and tweeting. Additionally, the media reform advocacy organization Free Press highlighted the three worst ideas from the report as well as issuing a statement which asserts that the report “falls short of real solutions” while it “hedges, and even seems in some instances to embrace more destructive local media consolidation as the answer to the crisis in journalism.”
Is there a solution? Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan views the report as a sign that young journalists can become local heroes and have individual value in their communities by staying away from big city media outlets and instead joining small town newspapers. The Atlantic’s Peter Osnos is not as positive. He views the report as a buzz kill for those in the news industry, saying that the report reveals that the possibility of government playing an active role in saving journalism will inevitably face political pressure. “Ultimately, this report shows that, much as some would wish it to be otherwise, a robust government contribution to news gathering through regulation and financial allowances that would address the problems described in “The Information Needs of Communities” is unlikely anytime soon.”
The report does not provide an optimistic outlook for journalism. As local reporting continues to disintegrate, more and more corporate- and government-issued press releases are likely to either be reprinted or unchecked by local news organizations. This will have destructive consequences for rural and urban citizens who could see their voices drowned out by those entities who can afford an expensive newswire distribution. Until a feasible solution to funding local investigative journalism is found, democracy in the U.S. might face the danger of not having an adequate check on the government officials and corporations that affect their lives.