Saturday, June 11, 2011

FCC Report: Local News Decline, Blogs Democratize, But Don't Yet Fill Gap

An FCC Report, THE INFORMATION NEEDS OF COMMUNITIES:The changing media landscape in a broadband age, published a couple of days ago reports a serious decline in local news brought about by the changing news technology world.

Below I've excerpted some of their comments on blogging and bloggers.  I'll try to do more later.

But first, their key findings are outlined in their executive summary:

On close inspection, some aspects of the modern media landscape may seem surprising:
  • An abundance o media outlets does not translate into an abundance of reporting
  • In many communities, there are now more outlets, but less local accountability reporting.
  • While digital technology has empowered people in many ways, the concurrent decline in local reporting has, in other cases, shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.
  • Far from being nearly-extinct dinosaurs, the traditional media players—TV stations and newspapers—have emerged as the largest providers of local news online.
  • The nonprofit media sector has become far more varied, and important, than ever beore.It now includes state public affairs networks, wikis, local news websites, organizations producing investigative reporting, and journalism schools as well as low-power FM stations,traditional public radio and TV, educational shows on satellite TV, and public access channels. Most of the players neither receive, nor seek, government funds.
  • Rather than seeing themselves only as competitors, commercial and nonprofit media are now finding it increasingly useful to collaborate [emphasis added]
  • Our specific recommendations ollow six broad principles:
  • Information required by FCC policy to be disclosed to the public should, over time, be made available online.
  • Greater government transparency will enable both citizens and reporters to more effectively monitor powerful institutions and benefit from public services.
  • Existing government advertising spending should be targeted more toward local media.;
  • Nonprofit media need to develop more sustainable business models, especially through private donations.
  • Universal broadband and an open Internet are essential prerequisites or ensuring that the new media landscape serves communities well.
  • Policymakers should take historically underserved communities into account when crafting strategies and rules.

Now, here are some things they say in the first 127 pages about blogging and bloggers:

Journalism as volunteerism - a thousand points of news
Perhaps no area has been more dramatically transformed than “hyperlocal”—coverage on the neighborhood or block by block level. Even in the fattest-and-happiest days of traditional media, they could not regularly provide news on such a granular level. Professional media have been joined by a wide range of local blogs, email lists, web-sites and the proliferation of local groups on national websites like Facebook or Yahoo!
For the most part, hyperlocally-oriented websites and blogs do not operate as profitable businesses, but they do not need to. This is journalism as volunteerism - a thousand points of news. The number and variety of websites, s, and tweets contributing to the news and information landscape is truly stunning. Yet this abundance can obscure a parallel trend: the shortage of full-time reporting.
One study in Baltimore:  95% of stories based on reporting done by traditional media
For instance, the Pew case study of Baltimore revealed a profusion of media outlets. Between new media(blogs and websites) and traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers), researchers counted 53 different outlets—considerably more than existed 10 years ago. But when Pew’s researchers analyzed the content they were providing,particularly regarding the city budget and other public affairs issues, they discovered that 95 percent of the stories—including those in the new media—were based on reporting done by traditional media (mostly the Baltimore Sun).  And those sources were doing less than they had done in the past. Several other studies have had similar findings.
Decline in gathering news, increase in distribution
This is not a criticism of citizen media or web-based news aggregators and commentators. Even when they are working primarily with the reporting of others, they often add tremendous value--distributing the news through alternate channels or offering new interpretations of its meaning. But we are seeing a decline in the media with a particular strength—gathering the information—and seeing it replaced by a media that often exhibits a different set of strengths (for instance, distributing and interpreting it).

. . . some of the changes hitting newsrooms may have improved coverage.
On the other hand, some of the changes hitting newsrooms may have improved coverage. Although the  Washington Post  has fewer education reporters, long-time journalist Jay Matthews says that by blogging he has gottencloser to real-world classroom issues: “I think that on balance—and this is a very contrarian view—our educationcoverage is better in the new era than in the old, because we have more contact with readers. Blogs allow us to be incontact with readers—it creates a debate and a back and forth.” He mentions a local story he covered about teacherswho no longer return graded exams to students. Parents were upset because they could not help their children learnfrom their mistakes. Matthews said the blog version of his story received about 50 comments from readers all overthe country. “Clearly this is something teachers are doing everywhere,” he says.

As in other areas, the cutbacks in education reporting have spurred the establishment of a number of non-profits that hire seasoned journalists to cover stories that newspapers miss. Dale Mezzacappa reported on educationfor the
Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years before going to work for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, where she is a contributing editor. Launched as a quarterly in 1994 to cover “underserved” communities in Philadelphia, the
Notebook is now available on the web. It cannot begin to replace large daily newspapers, Mezzacappa says, but it canll in some of the gaps.

Alan Gottlieb, a former reporter for the Denver Post, launched Education News Colorado inJanuary 2008.

The website, financed by local foundations, started by focusing on school-related legislation in thestate capitol, “because nobody does that anymore,” Gottlieb says.

In just a few years, the cost of publishing went from being relatively expensive to almost free
Meanwhile, the advent of free, simple-to-use blogging software was making it possible for every American to be a publisher, reporter, and pundit. By May 2011, one of the most popular blogging platforms, WordPress, was hosting 20 million blogs.

Though only a few bloggers have audiences large enough to place them among the top 100 websites, their contribution to news and commentary online has been revolutionary. The“long tail” came into view: instead of information being provided primarily by a few large players, the ecosystem now could sup-port millions of smaller players each serving a small but targeted audience.

The democratization of content creation caught on quickly. Wikipedia and other “wikis” enabled readers to collaborate in the creation of content; YouTube allowed a full range of users—from creative geniuses to proud parents to freaks—to “broadcast” their own videos; and Facebook gained national dominance as an all-purpose platform for self-expression and communication. Millions of people became not only consumers of information but creators, curators, and distributors. Remarkably, WordPress, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook offered these publishing tools to users for free.  It is hard to overstate the significance of these changes.  In just a few years, the cost of publishing went from being relatively expensive to almost free—at least in terms of the publishing technology.

. . .a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.”   Hardly.
The digital world continues to change by the minute.Smartphone applications, tablet apps, e-Readers, and other new services now make it easy to access news and information on-the-go, using the Internet as a pipeline but bypassing the need for a web browser to display it. As consumers increasingly gravitate to applications and services that make use of the Internet through more closed systems, such as smartphones, some even question the viability of business plans built on the current search-based,website-centric Internet.

The crop of news and information players who gained prominence on the web 2.0 landscape—bloggers,citizen journalists, and Internet entrepreneurs—was initially mocked by traditional media leaders as being inferior, worthless, and even dangerous. Famously, Jonathan Klein, then-president of CNN, declared, “Bloggers have no checks and balances. [It’s] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.”

Hardly. It is important to appreciate the extraordinary positive effects the new media—including those contributing while in pajamas—has had, not only in the spread of freedom around the world, but specifically in the provision of news, reporting, and civically important information.
More Diversity in Commentary and Analysis
The commentary business is far more open to new players. In the past, there were a handful of well-worn paths topundit-hood, usually requiring work as a big-time newspaper reporter or a top level government ofcial. The Inter-net allows for more newcomers. Markos Moulitsas, a former army sergeant, was a web developer when he createdthe Daily Kos, which has become the leading liberal blog. Glenn Reynolds, one of the top libertarian bloggers, is ab 2010, one of the top libertarian bloggers, is a professor at University of Tennessee. Matt Drudge was a telemarketer before he created the pioneering conservative aggregation site, the Drudge Report, and Andrew Breitbart, a leading conservative media entrepreneur, got his start in the online news world while working for Drudge.

The best web analysts have used the technology to improve the quality of their offerings. Andrew Sullivan was among the first to use the interactivity of the Internet to hone his argument in public, putting out an initial view-point and then adapting it, as new ideas or information challenged him. The best bloggers write with the knowledge that shoddy reporting or thinking will be caught in a matter of minutes.Some of these commentators perform the same function as the best news magazine and newspaper reporters: connecting dots (recognizing the links between seemingly isolated events) and ending inconsistencies in publicly available information. A handful of conservative bloggers, for instance, figured out that a key document in Dan Rather’s controversial 60 Minutes report on George W. Bush’s military service must have been fake, in part by noticing that the typeface on an ostensibly 30-year-old letter was suspiciously similar to a modern Microsoft Word font.

Cognitive Surplus
Web scholar Clay Shirky estimates that the citizens of the world have one trillion hours of free time annual-ly—what he refers to as a “cognitive surplus”—that could be devoted to shared projects and problem solving.

Technology has enabled some of this time to be spent on frivolous enterprises (“lolcats,” perhaps?), but some has been applied to civically important communal digital projects, as well. Shirky cites this example: Ory Okolloh, a blogger in Kenya, was tracking violence in the aftermath of her country’s December 2007 elections when the government imposed a news blackout. She appealed to her readers for updates on what was happening in their neighborhoods butwas quickly overwhelmed by the ood of information she received. Within 72 hours, two volunteer software engineershad designed a platform called “Ushahidi” to help her sort and map the information coming in from mobile phones and the web, so readers could see where violence was occurring and where there were peace efforts. This software has since been used “in Mexico to track electoral fraud, it’s been deployed in Washington, D.C., to track snow cleanup and most famously in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake,” Shirky says.

In other words, the technological revolution has not merely provided a flood of cool new gizmos. It has also democratized access to the world’s vast storehouse of knowledge and news.
I'll try to get more done, but I've got other things to do today.  Hope you're all having a great weekend.

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