2,000 Citizens Tell the FTC to Support Journalism

Last week, we asked you to send your thoughts and ideas about the future of the news to the Federal Trade Commission as part of its inquiry into the state of journalism. The response was overwhelming: More than 2,000 citizens submitted comments to the agency through SavetheNews.org.

In December, the FTC will hold workshops on journalism and the news in our digital economy, and will consider what role policymakers should play in supporting journalism.

The public outpouring clearly shows that people are concerned about these issues, and that they favor a central role for the government in supporting healthy and vibrant journalism. What that role should be, however, was hotly debated.

Some commenters called for renewed enforcement of media ownership laws; others called for investment in innovation and experimentation in both commercial and nonprofit journalism. Still others saw a role for direct subsidies to journalists or nonprofit news organizations.

This last idea was perhaps the most contentious. One submission to the FTC said, “Ultimately, I think a subsidized system of journalism is a fabulous answer to the current problem. I can almost hear the 'knee-jerk' anger, fear, and outrage that such a statement may provoke. If this concept is given honest consideration, however, it becomes a very viable and, honestly, obvious answer! Subsidies do not translate to sponsorship.”

Another commenter argued, “Government support must always be carefully insulated from news content. Journalism is vital to our democracy, and the U.S. government should focus efforts on helping struggling local news outlets. Local journalists are the best medicine to use against local corruption.” Another person said, “Keep government out of my journalism.”

And yet, there was almost universal support among commenters for increasing funding for public media. Some called for this expanded funding to be attached to guidelines for NPR and PBS to do more local news, while others said that funding should support public media outlets other than NPR and PBS.

Many comments relayed stories about the loss of newspapers to media consolidation.

Dona from Texas wrote, “We have lived in Corpus Christi, South Texas for six years. Our paper, The Corpus Christi Caller Times, has changed ownership three times, most recently E.W. Scripps. Scripps is very conservative and shows it in every edition. If there was a more moderate competitor, we would switch, but there is no local competitor. We still want the local news.”

A New Jersey commenter wrote, “My local paper, the Newark Star-Ledger, is shrinking in size rapidly…There's more attention paid to gossip and celebrity tracking than to world and local news.”

This sentiment was echoed elsewhere. “Our local paper does a poor job of covering national news, a terrible job of covering state news, and a mediocre job of covering local news. What we really need at this point is excellent coverage of state and local news from a local news source,” one person wrote.

And Sandra from Virginia wrote, “I wanted to get my local election results last night. Went to the radio – nothing. Went to the Internet – nothing. Went to the TV – nothing. Precious little about local elections in our local newspaper.”

Commenters also voiced concern about watered-down, non-local journalism, and about its consequences for our democracy. One person wrote, “The operation of the ‘Fourth Estate’ and its investigative function as a check and balance on the activities of government and the corporate community is essential for a vibrant democracy, which I'm sorry to perceive has become somewhat anemic due to the consolidation that has already occurred at too fast a pace.”

A newspaper staffer described how “Dozens of excellent reporters and columnists in my own newspaper have been dumped or forced into early retirement by cost-cutting decisions.”

“Those who remain try to cover more territory, more beats, more information. Investigative reporting – necessary for citizens of a democracy – goes by the wayside. Newspapers use press releases without digging into the workings of companies and government agencies. Residents of small towns and cities rarely get the coverage they need to make critical decisions at election time. Corruption and mismanagement flourish in this kind of environment.”

And one commenter reminded the FTC that our news lacks diversity: “When the control of the media is in the hands of a few, it is less likely we will hear the diverse opinions and voices that we must hear as a democratic nation.”

The public is unmistakably calling on the government to take action to reform our media system to support journalism. Join the call: Tell the FTC about the type of journalism that you want.

Shelby Kinney-Lang is an intern at Free Press in Northampton, MA, and an English junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good