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Nieman Journalism Lab
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FCC report recommends targeting government ads toward local news

So the long-awaited FCC report on “the information needs of communities” is out. And it’s big, in every sense: Not only does it weigh in, all told, at 465 pages of meaty pdf, but it’s also perhaps the most substantial and comprehensive look at the state of the United States’ media environment that’s been so far produced. The report is nearly two years in the making: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tapped its author, the journalist Steve Waldman, to “assess the state of media in these challenging economic times and make recommendations designed to ensure a vibrant media landscape” back in October…of 2009.

Reports like this one, of course, are relatively common, especially during our current time of anxiety about the state of the news industry (not to mention all the other anxieties that accompany it). The tomes, long-form status updates with “state of,” “media landscape,” and the like in their titles, often rehash — and, more optimistically, reiterate — common ideas about news delivery and consumption.

And on the one hand, it seems, “The Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age” is yet another entry in the “state of the news media” meta-genre: Much of it, from what I can tell, is a summary of what we already know — we need more on-the-ground reporters and we need more collaboration between for-profits and nonprofits, etc. — distinguished mostly by the not insignificant fact that the summarizing is being done by Uncle Sam.

The report’s key takeaway, it seems, is that the state of local media is…not great. As The New York Times’ write-up notes, “The report’s findings, while often self-evident, painted a dim portrait of local media” — a state of affairs that, Waldman noted, causes “ripple effects throughout the whole media system.” As a solution, the report proposes, intriguingly, a system in which “foundations, philanthropists and individual donors might create a national organization for the funding of local school reporters on the Teach for America model.” (That’s another common recommendation of the “state of the media” genre. “Report for America,” as an idea, has been percolating for a while now; Martin Langeveld, for one, suggested it in 2009, just before Waldman got his gig, in response to Len Downie and Michael Schudson’s “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report.)

Here’s something new, though: As another antidote to the well-documented problems facing local media, the report also recommends that the government actually intervene — not the word it’s using, but — by funneling money into local ad markets via government advertising. Those “be all you can be” military-recruitment ads? Run ‘em on WHDH, rather than NBC. As the report words it (p. 352): “Consider targeting current government advertising more toward local media businesses.”

And here’s its explanation (emphasis mine):

In 2005, the amount spent was $1 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. Currently much of this spending goes to national entertainment media. Some local broadcasters have argued that this could be targeted to local news enterprises without undermining the cost effectiveness of the campaigns, and perhaps even saving taxpayers money. We agree. Targeting existing federal advertising spending to local news media could help local news media models — both commercial and nonprofit, online and off-line — gain traction and help create local jobs, while potentially making taxpayer spending more cost-effective. In the past, it may have been more cost effective to buy national rather than local but technological improvements have made it possible to easily buy local media placements on TV, in print and online — so that shifting ads to local news media could prove more cost-effective for taxpayers.

That’s not wholesale intervention…but it comes close. And if it’s true that the level of government funding for news organizations has dropped sharply in recent years — as argued by USC’s Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal in one of last year’s “state of the media”-style reports — then government ad support could be one way to stanch the decline. (This could also be a controversial recommendation, of course, which is probably why the report goes out of its way to emphasize that “it is imperative that this strategy be implemented in a way that is strictly non-political and not subject to political manipulation.”)

Also new-ish and noteworthy: In the “journalism education” section on p. 355, the report recommends that “foundations and philanthropists help fund journalism-school ‘residencies’ for recent graduates who can help manage year-round efforts to produce significant journalism for the community, using journalism school students.” It’s a step, the report notes, that “could enable journalism schools to significantly increase their impact in communities, while improving the quality of their instruction at the same time.” And it is almost exactly what Columbia is doing with its New York World publication.

Anyway, that’s just a small take on a big document. If you read the report (light beach reading, for the win!) and happen to come across anything else noteworthy in it, let us know.

                                   
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Mark Coddington    July 18, 2014
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