Genachowski did little to help journalism—will the next FCC chair act differently?

On March 22, the Federal Communication Commission Chairman, Julius Genachowski, confirmed that he is stepping down.

Much of the discussion of Genachowski’s legacy has focused on what the FCC did and didn’t do during his tenure on important core issues like internet access and mobile service, as well as questions concerning the commission’s overall regulatory authority in an increasingly convergent media sector.

What about journalism? This is not a core concern for the FCC, but it is important, and with the publication in 2011 of the “Information Needs of Communities”-report, Genachowski at least raised the possibility that the commission would seek to play some role in addressing the democratic challenges that arise from the wrenching transformation that the news industry—newspapers in particular—is undergoing in the United States.

Especially since 2007, the combination of economic pressures and technological change has severely challenged the business models that used to sustain journalism in the United States. Especially local, metropolitan, and state-level issues are in many places no longer covered in ways that ensure people can keep track of public affairs in their community.

The implications are potentially dire—as Paul Starr has put it, it may well be “goodbye to the age of newspapers, hello to a new era of corruption.”

The “Information Needs of Communities”-report recognized the challenges this transformation in the news industry represent for American democracy, and though it did not present major policy initiatives to address the issue, it did make a number of minor recommendations.

Little has been done, however, to act on these recommendations, and there are no signs that the fundamental challenges—of how to serve, in the future, the democratic information needs of communities—have been met.

Here is how the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism summarizes developments in the news industry since the publication in 2011 of the “Information Needs of Communities”-report—

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.

[…] This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings from our new public opinion survey released in this report reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.

The problems that prompted the “Information Needs of Communities”-report have not gone away. In fact, in many respects, they are only growing worse. Even as digital technologies empower us in many ways as citizens and consumers, the news that help us act as such is rapidly eroding in many parts of the United States. The possibility that the FCC would seek to play some constructive role in addressing this  problem remains, almost two years after the report came out, at best that—a possibility.

Public policy initiatives in general and the FCC in particular cannot make the challenges that news media organizations and journalism face go away. But policy initiatives can help the news industry and the journalistic profession address these challenges and make the most of the new opportunities that present themselves to ensure that communities across American have access to the information that they need to engage in democratic self-governance.

In terms of doing so, Genachowski leaves no real legacy. The “Information Needs of Communities”-report published under his tenure documented many of the problems at hand. Let’s hope the next FCC chair will start looking for ways of addressing them.

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