Expert Commentary

Information needs of communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age

2011 FCC report on the changing information environment in the 21st century and the challenges for both the press and democracy.

In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission published a 500-page report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age,” that assessed civic and news industry trends and made recommendations to help address ongoing difficulties.

Among the purposes was to focus on those problem areas that may lead to the impaired functioning of democracy: “Most significant among them: 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.”

Key points made in the report include:

  • There continue to be deep questions about the future profitability of traditional media: “Newspaper advertising revenue dropped 47% from 2005 to 2009.” Moreover, “between 2006 and 2009, daily newspapers cut their annual editorial spending $1.6 billion per year.” The number of working journalists has shrunk to pre-1970 levels, including the loss of roughly 13,400 newspaper newsroom positions in the past four years.
  • “An abundance of media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting.” For example, “520 local TV stations … air no local news at all.” Additionally, “only about 25% to 30% of the population has access to a local all-news cable channel.” As for radio, “the number of commercial all-news stations has dropped from 50 in the mid-1980s to 30 today — with only 30 to 40 percent of the population living in an area that has an all-news [radio] station.”
  • Despite a sense that “old media” offerings are become increasingly less relevant, “traditional media players — TV stations and newspapers — have emerged as the largest providers of local news online.”
  • The report’s authors estimate that “it would take the media universe as a whole — commercial and nonprofit sectors — somewhere between $265 million and $1.6 billion annually to bridge the gaps we now see in the provision of civically important information.”

Among the recommendations made in the report are calls for “universal broadband and an open Internet [as] essential prerequisites for ensuring that the new media landscape serves communities well” and that “existing government advertising spending should be targeted more toward local media.” Other recommendations include the creation of state-based media outlets along the lines of C-SPAN that would increase public access to the workings of government; putting more government data online; changing tax policy to help nonprofit media thrive; removing certain obstacles for public broadcasting to help promote more local content; and the encouragement of more philanthropic and foundation funding for more media efforts.

Tags: technology

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