Last week the FCC released a report which, at 360 pages, is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the US media ever produced. One key finding is that while media in general are diverse and vigorous, local reporting has taken a significant hit. Worst of all, neither old nor new media seem to have the resources to hold government accountable. Steve Waldman, who headed the project, explains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week the FCC released a report that, at 360 pages, is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the US media ever produced. Titled “The Information Needs of Communities,” it's the culmination of two years of work, the product of 600 interviews and workshops held all over the country.
One of the report's key findings is that while the media, in general, are rich and vigorous, local reporting has taken a palpable hit. Worst of all, neither old media nor new seem to have the resources to hold government accountable.
Steven Waldman, head at the project, his findings suggest that journalism’s crucial function as local watchdog has been muzzled, even as information blooms online. It was, he says, quite a surprise.
STEVEN WALDMAN: You have this incredible moment of abundance. There are more stories, there are more media outlets. So to have all that abundance and at the same time dig down and find out that we're actually experiencing really serious shortages of a certain type of reporting, which we call local accountability reporting, was a bit counterintuitive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay local accountability reporting means accounting for government’s impact on localities. And you noted that 27 states have no reporters based in the nation's capitol, and that newspapers are producing many fewer stories.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Right, or another example is that during a five year period the amount that state governments spent went up by about 20 percent, and during that same time the number of reporters covering state government went down by about a third. Anyone who has some concern about how tax dollars are spent on the state level, it's a bad formula. And it ripples through the system in a variety of ways.
First of all, basic reporting functions like the covering of City Hall and the school board and the state house and health and education have gotten less and less. First, that means that reporters are relying more on press releases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which means the news gets driven by these government agencies and politicians, and not by probing reporters.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Which was another surprise, in a way, because one of the characteristics of the modern digital media era is it empowers people. So to find that at the same time that's happening, there's this countervailing trend, which basically is a shift of power from citizens to institutions - to government, to companies, because they're in a better position to drive the storyline.
About 15,000 reporters left newsrooms. Most of that happened in the last four or five years, but there's this tremendous innovation going on, on the digital media side. So is it filling the gap?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're talking about local and hyper local sites that offer accountability reporting, The Voice of San Diego, The Texas Tribune, the Chicago News Cooperative are a few examples. So what are they doing that's working? And why don't you think more of those will spring up?
STEVEN WALDMAN: They're doing great investigative work, they're doing database journalism, really top notch stuff. Channel 4 in San Diego, they had had some cutbacks in staff. They no longer were doing as much depth, and the news director wanted to improve it. So he went to Voice of San Diego, which, as you said, is one this hot new startups, and they worked out a deal where Voice of San Diego goes on the air a couple times a week and they do “San Diego Fact Check” and “San Diego Explained.” It's a very viable model, with one big “if.” The nonprofits have to have enough money. But that's a pretty big “if.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so the American news media has an accountability gap. You offer some solutions in the report. Can you go quickly through them?
STEVEN WALDMAN: So, first of all, in the nonprofit sector, individual citizens, philanthropists, foundations all need to be thinking about this as an important part of building a better community and a better country. We never really had any need to do that. It was kind of taken care of by the commercial media. Not true anymore.
If you have a concern about health or education or something like that, you better make sure that there is an education reporter covering the schools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Solution number one is rich people need to pony up.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Rich people do need to pony up, but the government needs to clean up the tax code because right now there's all sorts of ambiguities and problems with the way IRS deals with nonprofit media. For instance, the IRS ruled against a newspaper that wanted to convert from being a commercial entity to being a nonprofit entity. That's really unfortunate because that could be a great model. There are lots of newspapers that could survive. They just can't make 30 percent profit margins anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What else?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Universal broadband. Having high speed Internet across the spectrum is a kind of prerequisite for innovation because if you're in a community where the newspaper has contracted and there's some good stuff going on online, but you're not online, you have taken a big step backwards, in terms of the quality of the information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rich people, change in the tax code, universal broadband. Anything else?
STEVEN WALDMAN: The federal government currently spends about a billion dollars a year on advertising. A lot of it goes to national entertainment programming. It could be Army recruiting, Census Bureau, safety. So we proposed why not try to target some of that to local media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also suggest in your report that there be more transparency, that broadcasters post information about how they're doing. Who cares?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, there is, actually, currently a rule that says if you, as a TV station, take money from an advertiser and basically run advertorials, you have to disclose it. But not many people notice this disclosure. It goes by very quickly on air, and the wording is hard to figure out.
So let's take just that simple idea and say what if, in addition to disclosing it on air, you disclose it on the Internet, create a permanent searchable record, so that anyone in the community can see which stations do pay per play the most. That's an example where transparency can actually have a transformative effect, much more so than if the government tried to itself make judgments about what was appropriate and what wasn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How likely do you think any of your recommendations are to be implemented?
STEVEN WALDMAN: Well, I think the transparency recommendations for the FCC have a good chance, ‘cause the chairman of the FCC endorsed them after the report came out. The idea of having some ad money go into local communities, instead of nationally I think will have a lot of support because local media will like it.
And the tax code changes - I think actually some of that could be cleared up through - with clarifications from the IRS, without congressional action. And I want to clarify one thing. One way or another, if we want to have accountability reporting, citizens are going to have to pay for some of it. And that can't just be rich people. That has to be everyone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN WALDMAN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Waldman is senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and author of the FCC's Report on the Information Needs of Communities, which you can find at fcc.gov/infoneedsreport.
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