Encouraging research on improving local news

technology / Article

Along with Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and others, I’ve argued that much of journalism and mass communication research is not as useful as it should be. So it seems only fair to note that some research is useful and much appreciated. Recently at the Harvard Faculty Club, at a meeting chaired by the Shorenstein Center’s Alex Jones, nearly a dozen deans and foundation leaders heard research of the interesting kind.

The deans were from schools participating in the Carnegie Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. A year ago, they had decided to explore the recommendations of the FCC report led by Steven WaldmanInformation Needs of Communities, modeled after the Knight Commission’s report of the same name, declared a crisis in “local accountability journalism” in the United States. The June meeting at Harvard was an update on research into the report’s suggested remedies.

Several professors agreed with Waldman’s point that foundations can ease the digital transition. They singled out community foundations as helpful new funders of local news and information. Knight Foundation has encouraged this trend through the Knight Community Information Challenge, which is matching some $24 million to help create more informed and engaged communities. Our insights are here. The projects have contributed to Oklahoma taking on chronic prison system problems, Dubuque increasing water conservation, Northeast Ohio improving public health services for the mentally ill and much more. The projects work best when they are collaborative.

Also encouraging was Arizona State professor Len Downie’s paper. Among its recommendations was an endorsement of the Waldman recommendation that the IRS update its rules for approving nonprofit media. Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, knows what nonprofit media can do from his experience with the News21 project. Since Knight currently are funding a project to look at the nonprofit media rules, which haven’t been updated since the 1970s, we were happy to hear of Downie’s support.

Helpful too was professor Barbara Cochran’s presentation of her paper in progress with colleagues at the University of Missouri. One of its topics was the FCC report’s recommendation that $1 billion in federal ad spending be redirected locally, since we have lost an estimated $1.5 billion annually in local journalism along with the 15,000 jobs cut from local media since 2008. Like many of the schools, Missouri held a meeting (now on YouTube) to discuss the report. Cochran’s insights were two: First, the $1 billion, once you remove one-time census ads and war-time military recruiting ads, is really more like $220 million. Second, that the best way to try local ads is on a case-by-case basis and not with a sweeping rule. Points taken.

A strong University of North Carolina paper agreed with the recommendation to create “state C-spans” to increase coverage of state governments. While state spending has increased over the past few decades, the numbers of journalists in statehouse bureaus have dropped dramatically. Even more important was the paper’s exploration of how privatization of the public broadcast spectrum could produce money to advance important local initiatives, including municipal broadband projects.

Good reports also came from Washington State on dramatic shortages of local news in rural areas, from the University of California at Berkeley on how collaboration is increasing among former journalistic competitors and from the University of Texas on universities that are helping plug the local news gap.

Why is it important for journalism and mass communication schools to think about the local journalism crisis? Perhaps the better question might be: If they don’t, who will? Even the most exalted newsroom, Columbia dean Nicholas Lemann noted, has a kind of “mental chastity belt” about the issues of the business of journalism and national media policy. But journalism educators are seen as neutral in the special interest wars of Washington, where billions in media money and even more in the way of community information and engagement can be gained or lost in the fine print.

Our national leaders should routinely call upon journalism and communication researchers before they decide important issues. That will happen more easily as more universities take up these issues. In fact, just a week after the Harvard meeting, the University of Southern California briefed the FCC on community information needs. The United States of America, the USC team said, has “measurable and significant” information needs that are simply not being met.  The ideas being discussed by scholars, everything from taxing cable and telecom monopolies, to public broadcasting reform, to bringing in more foundation funding, to more content by journalism schools, will help us focus on information needs now, when it matters, at the dawn of this new digital age.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation

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