FCC on the Information Needs of Communities

The FCC Working group on the Information Needs of Communities has just released its eighteen-months-in-the-making Future of Media report—now called “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” The 365-page report thoroughly assesses the current news media landscape, including policy and regulation, and provides recommendations, some directed at the FCC, others to the broader community of policymakers, philanthropists, and citizens.

From the Report’s Overview:

Thomas Jefferson, who loathed many specific newspapers, nonetheless considered a free press so vital that he declared, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” If he were alive today, Jefferson would likely clarify that his dedication was not to “newspapers” per se but to their function: providing citizens the information they need to both pursue happiness and hold accountable government as well as other powerful institutions.

That sense of the vital link between informed citizens and a healthy democracy is why civic and media leaders grew alarmed a few years ago when the digital revolution began undercutting traditional media business models, leading to massive layoffs of journalists at newspapers, newsmagazines, and TV stations. Since then, experts in the media and information technology spheres have been debating whether the media is fulfilling the crucial role envisioned for it by the Founders. In 2008 and 2009, a group that was both bipartisan (Republicans and Democrats) and bi-generational (“new media” and “old media”) studied this issue at the behest of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The group, the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, concluded: “America is at a critical juncture in the history of communications. Information technology is changing our lives in ways that we cannot easily foresee…The digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance. But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully. How we react, individually and collectively, to this democratic shortfall will affect the quality of our lives and the very nature of our communities.”

The Knight Commission’s findings, as well as those of other blue-ribbon reports, posed a bipartisan challenge to the FCC, whose policies often affect the information health of communities. The chairman responded in December 2009 by initiating an effort at the FCC to answer two questions: 1) are citizens and communities getting the news, information, and reporting they want and need? and 2) is public policy in sync with the nature of modern media markets, especially when it comes to encouraging innovation and advancing local public interest goals?

A working group consisting of journalists, entrepreneurs, scholars, and government officials conducted an exploration of these questions. The group interviewed hundreds of people, reviewed scores of studies and reports, held hearings, initiated a process for public comment, and made site visits. We looked not only at the news media but, more broadly, at how citizens get local information in an age when the Internet has enabled consumers to access information without intermediaries.

This report is intended both to inform the broad public debate and help FCC Commissioners assess current rules.

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