The FCC Says Local Media is Thriving. That’s Not So Clear.

With a few exceptions, it's against federal regulations for your local television station to buy your local newspaper. Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal to change those rules.

Since 1975, the commission has generally barred organizations from owning both a newspaper and a full-power radio or television station in the same market to protect what it calls "viewpoint diversity." In other words, the agency worried that if too few companies owned the dominant media players in a particular town, the public would suffer.

Now, the FCC staff argues the cross-ownership rules are no longer necessary to protect a diversity of viewpoints because of "the multiplicity of alternative sources of local news and information available in the marketplace," particularly digital-only news outlets.

But with the shuttering of the New York City local news sites Gothamist and DNAinfo this month, it's worth looking at just how big a role digital-only local news outlets play in the public's media diet.

The proposed change in cross-ownership rules is part of a broadcaster-friendly order the FCC is scheduled to vote on Thursday. The proposed rules would also ease restrictions on how many TV and radio stations an owner can control in a market. Republicans have been agitating to loosen media-ownership rules for years. A George W. Bush-era attempt was thrown out by the Supreme Court, but the agency believes its latest attempt is on firmer footing. Republicans control a majority of seats on the FCC, so the proposal is expected to pass.

To justify the changes, the order points to a 2011 Pew Research study that found the internet ranked as the first- or second-most-important source of information for 15 of 16 local topics.

What the FCC order doesn't mention, however, is that the Pew study found respondents relied on the internet most often for information on local restaurants and other businesses. For news about subjects such as local politics, government, crime, or taxes, respondents turned more often to newspapers or television. Factoring in both how often respondents turned to a medium, and the importance of the information, Pew concluded that the internet was “a distant second to newspapers in terms of widespread use and value."

More recently, a 2016 Pew study found that respondents were most likely to get news from local television, followed by online, and print newspapers. That study asked about news in general, not about local news in particular.

Pew identified a large number of local news sites in a 2014 study, which found that 231 out of 402 digital-only news outlets had a local focus. But it's not clear how much original reporting these sources actually do.

A 2011 FCC study by Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University, examined local digital-only publications in five metropolitan regions—Dallas‐Ft. Worth; Houston; Portland, Oregon; Cincinnati; and Charlotte. Hindman found that while many sites produced high-quality content, "a majority of posts involve commentary on stories and features found in traditional media outlets." The study also noted that, nationwide, most popular digital-only news sources were offshoots of shuttered print newspapers. "While these sites may help maintain a bit of news diversity that would otherwise be lost, their persistence can’t be counted as evidence that the internet is expanding local news options," the report says.

Overall, audiences for digital-only local news sites tend to be low. A 2015 Pew study of media habits in Denver, Macon, Georgia, and Sioux City, Iowa found that fewer than 10 percent of respondents often get local news from digital-only outlets. "The reliance on nontraditional news outlets is still the exception rather than the norm," the study says.

In short, local digital news sites are far from replacing local television and newspapers in terms of either reach or breadth of coverage. The internet may provide alternative sources of local weather reports, restaurant reviews, and job listings, but citizens still rely heavily on traditional media for information that requires more leg work.

And even where those alternatives exist, they might not exist for long, as evidenced by the shuttering of outlets like Gothamist and DNAinfo in New York City, and DCist and Hill Now in Washington, DC.

The FCC claims that the struggles of local media companies argue in favor of allowing more consolidation. Perhaps pooling resources with television stations would enable newspapers to survive longer. The newspaper industry is eager to see the cross-ownership rules revoked. "Investment is necessary to sustain quality journalism; therefore, we have sought to roll back these outdated regulations," Danielle Coffey, vice president of public policy at the industry group News Media Alliance wrote, in response to the FCC proposal.

But struggling publications already have the option to merge with other outlets. Last year the FCC created an exception to the cross-ownership for failed or failing papers and stations, acknowledging that the public would be worse off if a news outlet disappeared entirely than they would be under a more consolidated media market. Proponents of the rule change say that exception isn't adequate. "Requiring newspapers to fail or be close to failing before they can draw much needed investment from broadcasters is a 'too little, too late' recipe,” NMA CEO David Chavern said in a statement last year.

Opponents of the change worry that consolidation will lead to smaller newsrooms. "Mergers are usually about cutting spending," says Matt Wood of the organization Free Press, which opposes media consolidation. A combined company might create a single newsroom for both television and print, leading to layoffs and an overall reduction in original reporting.

What's less clear, however, is whether broadcasters actually want to buy newspapers. Several media companies, including Tribune, Gannett, and NewsCorp have separated their newspaper units to focus on broadcasting.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/the-fcc-says-local-media-is-thriving-thats-not-so-clear/