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FCC study shows shrinking news staffs mean less accountability reporting

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WASHINGTON ‑ It’s not just newspapers that are cutting staff and spending. It’s the entire media industry.

But according to a study from the Federal Communications Commission, “The Information Needs of Communities,” presented Thursday, the media landscape is more vibrant than ever before because of digital technology.

Daily newspapers have downsized by more than 25 percent since 2006, television news staffs have declined by 50 percent since the late 1980s, newsmagazine staffs have dropped by almost 50 percent since 1985 and the number of all-news local radio shows has gone from 50 in the mid-1980s to 30 today.

The report, headed by Senior Adviser to the Chairman Steven Waldman, was intended to find out if communities were receiving the information they need and want from the media and if the FCC and other organizations were helping media for the future.

The study was based on information from more than 600 journalists and experts.

Waldman said at the FCC meeting that issues such as a shortage of local accountability reporting need to be addressed.

From 2003 to 2008, state government spending increased substantially, according to the report, but the number of state government reporters decreased by about one-third, meaning the journalism watchdog responsibility has declined when it should have increased.

Waldman said that decline could be because of what he called “hamsterization,” meaning reporters are now writing, Tweeting and doing video and being stretched to their limits with the number of story assignments.

He said this lack of in-depth reporting can lead to corruption, worse schools and wasted taxpayer dollars.

“I think this has real harm on the community,” Waldman said.

Another major finding of the report is that nonprofit and commercial media are starting to collaborate rather than compete and that many nonprofits are not receiving or seeking government funding.

The FCC does not have jurisdiction over print journalism or the Internet. It regulates radio, TV, satellite and cable delivery systems.

Waldman recommended speeding up the process from paper to online so the public can gain access to information more quickly and easily, removing barriers for online entrepreneurship, repealing the Fairness Doctrine, establishing a C-SPAN station in every state and aiming government advertising toward local media.

“We believe if we take the right steps instead of the wrong steps … we’ll end up with the best media system we’ve ever had,” Waldman said.

But Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner, did not agree with all of the report’s findings.

“The overarching conclusion of the staff report seems to be that America’s media landscape is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis of news and information. But there is a crisis,” Copps said. “America’s news and information resources keep shrinking and hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold and, indeed, undiscovered.”

The commission also heard from James A. Barnett Jr., its chief of public safety and homeland security, and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service.

They outlined plans for the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, scheduled for 2 p.m. EST Nov. 9.

Barnett said that if a major crisis hits one part of the nation officials may want to warn the entire country. The test will include radio and TV, including broadcast, cable and satellite.

“We need to know the system will work,” Barnett said.

The system runs weekly and monthly tests at the local and state levels, but the FCC does not require national tests.

“We are harnessing modern technology to communicate with people in a way that’s effective in time of emergencies,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but it is now a matter that is being actively pursued.”

The FCC made one decision for modern technology. By unanimous vote, it decided that all tariff filings must be completed online, instead of on paper or on computer diskettes. Large companies have filed electronically since 1998, but now smaller companies will be required to do so as well.

This change should improve access to the information for consumers and make it easier for companies.

“I think this is a great step forward,” Copps said.

Reach reporter Lindsey Erdody at shws1@shns.com or 202-326-9866

SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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