Give The People What They Want

Most people, from local citizens to working journalists, foundations to academics, policy makers and even some publishers, agree that the business model for journalism is broken. The experimentation we are seeing emerge at the local, state and national level is encouraging, but also highlights the fact that commercial media is failing to meet the information needs of communities.

The evidence is clear. We can point to the evening news which is filled with sports, crime and weather instead of public affairs programming and enterprise reporting. We can point to cable news channels that spew an endless stream of celebrity gossip, talking head pundits and sensationalism. And we can point to newspapers that are gutting local political and issue coverage and replacing it with generic wire reports and lifestyle articles.

Too often, mainstream media companies and the think tanks they fund, defend the erosion of quality journalism by arguing: “We’re just giving the people what they want,” or “There is no demand for other kinds of news.” These folks usually describe accountability journalism and public affairs programming as “broccoli journalism,” calling up images of parents force-feeding their children vegetables, just because they are “good for them.”

With the FCC Future of Media deadline having just passed we are seeing people trot out these same tired talking points. It’s about time we put this straw man to bed.

Earlier this month J-Lab at American University released a major study of the Philadelphia media ecosystem. They looked at the amount and quality of local news produced by the city’s newspapers, broadcast stations, blogs and new online newsrooms. They also surveyed Philadelphia citizens about their views on local media and what they wanted from their city’s journalism organizations. This is a vital exercise that we need to see replicated in more areas, rural and urban, around the country.

The results are telling:

  • People in Philadelphia want more public affairs news than they are now able to get.
  • They don’t think their daily newspapers are as good as the newspapers used to be.
  • They want news that is more connected to their city.

“Simply put, people in Philadelphia are mad at the city’s dailies,” the authors of the report summarized. Citizens complained to the researchers that local coverage is “superficial,” lacking careful follow-up reporting and too often comes “days late.” Many local citizens could point to numerous key issues facing the city that were un- or under-reported. People clearly know what they want and the local commercial media doesn’t seem to be giving it to them.

These findings square with other research – such as the Pew State of the Media report – showing a dramatic increase in news consumption and demand. Anecdotal evidence from many of the new nonprofit journalism entrepreneurs also reinforces these ideas. Places like Voice of San Diego, San Francisco Public Press, New Haven Independent and the Texas Tribune who depend on community demand in terms of subscriptions, memberships and donations, report a growing (though not yet sustainable) base of support. Many of these new news organizations are actively asking their communities what they need and want in the news. Finally, hundreds of people have come to community forums on the future of news in cities across the country. As we have traveled the country talking with local communities about the future of journalism we have been overwhelmed by the passion and concern people have expressed.

In response to the real demands of the public we have seen innovative new investments by foundations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While these investments are laying the groundwork for exciting new projects, there is still huge demand in our communities.

The people have spoken. Now we need to be sure the FCC hears them. We need an open and honest debate about how public policy can help meet the real needs of communities. And we can’t let stale talking points and straw men inhibit that conversation.

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