FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has a serious PR problem on his hands following today’s release of a long-awaited 478-page report about the state of local journalism. Public interest advocates are livid over the absence of tough and sweeping proposals to improve TV and radio station newscasts. The Media Access Project, an activist law firm, blasted the report for lacking “meaningful recommendations.” And some are talking about trying to turn audience frustration over the lousy quality of local news into a high-profile political issue. Commissioner Michael Copps says he wants the FCC to hold at least three hearings over the next three months to see if the public agrees with report’s presumption that “they are being served by our present news and information infrastructure.” He adds that “there is real urgency here. … I cannot and will not leave these issues where they are.”
The report — Information Needs Of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape In A Broadband Age — was prepared by an FCC working group led by former journalist Steven Waldman. It says that local public-interest journalism has weakened as traditional newspapers and TV stations struggle to keep up with competition from Internet news sources.
But it doesn’t urge the FCC to make a major change in the area where it has the clearest ability to make a difference: its rules governing TV and radio broadcasters. They are are licensed by the agency and are required to serve the public interest. Activists had hoped to see recommendations requiring stations to devote additional time to news, and cover local issues seriously. Yet the report doesn’t insist that broadcasters do more. Indeed, it asks regulators to weaken existing rules that require stations to explain how their shows serve their communities — including children. In an effort to reduce paperwork, the staff would enable stations to stop creating a public file each quarter with information about its ownership and programming. Instead, the report says that “over time” stations should provide information online based on a sample week of shows, not all of the programs. The study also shies from taking a position on a hot issue at the agency: Should the FCC make it easier for a single company to own a newspaper and TV station in the same community? “We are not persuaded that relaxing ownership rules would inevitably lead to more local news, information or reporting or that it would inevitably lead to less,” it says.
Elsewhere, the report calls for stronger efforts to promote broadband use, shifting government ad dollars to local media, and changing the tax rules to help non-profit news operations. “As the report identifies and celebrates the potential of new communications technologies, it also highlights important gaps that threaten to limit that potential and harm communities,” Genachowski says.