FCC report details fall of state, local news but offers wrong solution

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report on the state of journalism in the technological age. The year-long study is based on interviews with 600 journalists, scholars and industry leaders. Among its many findings is that newsrooms are no longer equipped to cover local and state governments.

The report blames the shrinking of the newsroom for many of the problems facing journalism. The FCC study showed that newspapers and TV news networks across the nation have halved the staff they had in the 1980s. And those reporters are now forced to produce in “the hamster wheel,” where reporters must rush to tell the news without time or resources to dig deeper. According to the FCC, reporters “have less time to discover the stories lurking in the shadows or to unearth the information that powerful institutions want to conceal.”

One of the recommendations made by the FCC is a state-based version of C-SPAN. This STATE-SPAN would provide wall-to-wall coverage of local government and allow the public to hear the debates and see the votes coming from their state capitols. Although this would increase access, it remains to be seen if the public is interested in this. For STATE-SPAN, who would explain why a state or local legislative action matters? Veteran journalists know that most major decisions are made behind the scenes, long before an issue comes before a council or legislature.

The other big question is who would fund this venture? The cable television industry funds C-SPAN as a public service, but who could step up to provide such access in all fifty states?

Instead of beginning a risky venture like STATE-SPAN or allowing government to intervene in the journalism business, the FCC should look at new journalism initiatives that are covering local and state government effectively. Many of these organizations are nonprofit organizations operating solely online but breaking news in the mainstream media.

Online, nonprofit journalism organizations are filling a void that traditional news media no longer can. Although news organization startups are increasing, many of these nonprofits have been around for decades and are focusing on local stories. Some of the nonprofit journalism organizations serve as watchdogs for government, Wall Street and the media itself. Some serve as explanatory journalists, who have the space and time to elucidate the complex details of issues that newspapers and television cannot. But regardless of their mission, they are providing a desperately needed service to the American people.

As further proof of the strength in online journalism organizations, numerous straight-shooting, frustrated journalists are leaving traditional newsrooms and joining these online newsrooms. These organizations provide journalists the opportunity to investigate and reemerge as the news beat reporters of yesteryear. In the last year alone, Howard Kurtz, Peter Goodman, Jim VandeHei, and Richard Johnson have voluntarily exited the legacy media to join the online news arena.

The FCC is correct on many of the points made in their report. Journalism is struggling. State and local news will disappear unless more news organizations step up and begin covering that beat. We hope more organizations hear the urgent calling of this FCC report and begin producing state and local news content that will keep voters informed.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which provides investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org. The Franklin Center has two national news websites. To check out the investigative news site please visit Watchdog.org. To get the latest state capitol news please visit StateHouseNewsOnline.com.

About Jason Stverak

Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters, citizens and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise and technical support.