There can be no doubt that local newspapers have been significantly impacted over the last two decades by the ascent of the Internet. And, as we have written before (see, for instance, our article here), digital media has also had a significant impact on the local revenues of broadcasters, who also have traditionally specialized in covering local events. To study the effect of the decline in local news sources, legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to create a government committee to look at various aspects of this issue. The “Future of Local News Committee” would include individuals appointed by the majority and minority in the House and Senate, as well as individuals selected by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the US Agency for Global Media. Each appointee is to be someone experienced in some aspect of local media. The committee would have one year to deliver a report to Congress.
What would they study? The legislation suggests that the committee would have broad investigatory powers to review how the change in local media has affected local communities. The bill’s preface includes language stating that over 2000 newspapers have gone out of business since 2004, and that of the 6,700 remaining, 1000 could be classified as “ghost newspapers” whose staffs have been so reduced that they cannot effectively cover local events. The bill also cites a Pew Research study that shows that local newsroom employees at newspapers, broadcast outlets and digital sources dropped 25% from 2008-2018. Perhaps most startling is the statement that newspapers alone lost more than $35,000,000,000 in revenue between 2004 and 2018. All these factors, and many others cited in the bill, are alleged to show that local media can no longer effectively cover local events.
The committee would have access to government records and is empowered to hold hearings both in Washington and across the country. In addition, the committee would be charged with reporting on what could be done to help remedy the loss of local news and “reinvigorate” local media. The only specific remedy mentioned in the legislation is the idea of expanding the mandate of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help fund local news or to otherwise provide government economic support to local media. Presumably, the committee would look at alternative solutions, like the proposal to allow traditional media outlets to collectively negotiate with tech platforms over the terms and conditions of those platforms’ use of the content they create (see our article here about the pending legislation on that proposal).
The bill to create the committee thus far is not a bipartisan proposal, so whether it moves forward or not is an open question. The idea of studying local media and the impact of changing technology on local media is not new. Over a decade ago, the FCC itself commissioned a similar study. Most called it the “Future of Media” report, though the official name of the study was “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” After much controversy over whether the FCC should be involved in reviewing decisions of media outlets as to what to cover (see our article here), the FCC’s report came up with various ideas about enhanced disclosures by broadcasters, including the creation of the broadcast online public file, expansion of LPFM stations, and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine (see our article here on the findings of that report). While some of these ideas were implemented by the FCC, they did not result in any significant structural changes in the media industry.
Of course, times have changed in the decade since the Future of Media Report and, as we have written, there are many calls for regulation of social media and other tech platforms given the immense impact that they have had on society. The idea of the proposed blue-ribbon committee is just one more manifestation of the belief that something needs to be done to regulate the tech giants, though there still seems to be no consensus as to what that regulation would look like (see our article here). We will see if this proposal moves forward in the coming months.