WASHINGTON — Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund today launched a campaign to set aside proceeds from the auction of public TV station licenses to strengthen local journalism and community-information projects.
According to new Free Press research (PDF), at least 54 public television stations around the country are taking part of the ongoing FCC broadcast incentive auction. Spectrum held by public TV stations alone is expected to bring in as much as $6 billion in the auction, with state governments, local school boards, university trustees and other station owners each likely raking in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for taking their stations off the air or moving down the dial to free up bandwidth to meet the growing demand mobile data.
“This auction of the public airwaves gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the crisis in local news and reimagine how local communities can get the information they need,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund. “Instead of standing by as vital public outlets disappear, we should seize on this moment to reinvest in innovative community media projects and serious accountability journalism. If we act now, this could be the biggest boost for public-minded media since the creation of the public broadcasting system.”
The initial phase of the campaign will focus on New Jersey and urge lawmakers there to devote a portion of the proceeds from auctioning state-owned public TV licenses to support innovative journalism and community-driven projects across the state.
Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund will be pushing to create a $250 million permanent public fund to support local information needs for decades to come. Ideas for use of proceeds include support for community-focused digital news sites, blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, public data access apps and other civic engagement tools. The FCC estimates that the New Jersey licenses, currently leased to the New York-based public broadcaster WNET, are worth as much as $2.3 billion.
In a New York Times Op-Ed published today, Chris Daggett of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which is a key supporter of this campaign, announced the project. “Nowhere is there a better opportunity to take advantage of the auction than in New Jersey,” he wrote. “The governor and State Legislature should create a permanent fund to support a new model for public-interest media, financed by a significant portion of any auction revenue.”
New Jersey is not the only place that could benefit from the auction. The 54 public TV stations that Free Press found participating in the auction are concentrated in 18 states and the District of Columbia. These include:
- Three Los Angeles-area public TV stations — KVCR-TV, KOCE-TV and KLCS-TV — that together could be worth more than $1.5 billion, based on the FCC’s maximum opening-bid prices.
- WYCC-TV on the South Side of Chicago, owned by local community colleges, which could be worth as much as $473 million.
- WHUT-TV, licensed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., the country’s only Black-owned public broadcasting station — which could be worth as much as $460 million.
These and other stations across the country filed a non-binding application to participate in the auction, but beyond that, the status of this spectrum sell-off — including the size of each of the winning bids — won’t be known until the auction has closed, which is expected in early 2017.
This new campaign will build on Free Press’ successful News Voices: New Jersey project, which brings together newsrooms and residents across the state to advocate for better local media and foster community-centered journalism.
“There is a crisis going on in local news, and if this crisis deepens our communities will really be in trouble,” said Mike Rispoli, director of News Voices: New Jersey. “The original purpose of these airwaves was to serve the public interest, and policymakers have a responsibility to make sure that the proceeds of this sale continue to do just that. We can reinvent local journalism in ways that help our neighborhoods and cities, amplify previously overlooked voices, meet the information needs of communities, and tell important stories that matter.”