We voters need information about the problems facing us, how politicians and bureaucrats propose to solve those problems, and what they actually do. That’s why our Constitution includes our right to a free press. In today’s USA, our press may be free, but state and local news is becoming harder to find. We now have a serious problem with “news deserts” where people have few if any options to learn what’s going on in their area. New FCC and proposed decisions are not helping.
Photo credit: Filiberto Stazzari
We have a serious and growing problem of “news deserts.” There are many counties or even large parts of several states that lack access to local and state news through some combination of a locally owned daily newspaper, radio station, television station, or internet news provider.
- Many counties did not have any local newspapers in 2015 according to the Columbia Journalism Review. There is a particularly large news desert covering large parts of Nebraska and Kansas. Other notable newspaper deserts can be seen in Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, and South Dakota. In other areas, there is only 1 local daily newspaper. This may be sufficient, but only if that newspaper is unbiased and has the capacity to report stories that matter.
- Many television stations in late 2016 did not report any daily news Monday through Friday (622) or use news generated by some other station (357) according to the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). Their census covered all 1,684 non-satellite television stations operating in late 2016. That means that at least 58% percent of all operating, non-satellite television stations were not providing daily news or were providing less relevant news generated in some other location.
- Many radio stations do not provide daily news. According to the RTDNA, 71% did and 29% did not – out of a random sample of 1,151 radio stations surveyed in late 2016.
- Lots of people can not use the internet to substitute for missing newspaper, radio, or TV news. This link from the FCC has spreadsheet information on how many people and counties do not have adequate access to internet connectivity of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. By their count, almost 34 million people, 2/3 of whom live in rural areas, lack adequate access. Some quick analysis shows that there are at least 218 rural counties without any access at 25 Mbps and at least 1,428 rural counties (out of 3,143 total) where less than half the population have adequate access. (Many don’t have access at any speed.) Lots of these are the same counties without local newspaper coverage.
- The total number of reporters, regardless of who they work for, has been declining for years. The shortage is especially bad at the state government level and in the rural counties. The elimination of a rule this week requiring radio and TV stations to operate a studio in their license areas will probably add to the news desert problem, especially with regard to local politics and also for community coordination in emergencies such tornados or industrial accidents.
Privately financed media are a big plus when there is competition, but it can be a serious negative when media ownership is concentrated in just a few hands. In 1983, most of US media was controlled by 50 companies; by 2012 the FCC and congress had somehow let 50 become just 6 companies. That means less local news and more control by wealthy corporations, for good or evil.
On October 25, 2017, the chairman of the FCC announced they propose to roll back many of the rules against further media consolidation. He said the old rules don’t make sense because the situation has changed because the traditional media now have healthy competition from the internet and all the associated news and entertainment producers. He was quoted as saying “If the federal government has no business in intervening in the news, then we must stop the government from intervening in the news business.” Does that make sense? It is like asserting that we should get rid of football rules and referees because it is bad to interfere in football games. That kind of thinking makes for unfair games – and further media consolidation at the expense of our heartland.
What do ordinary citizens think about the situation? In 2006, when media consolidation was already well underway, the FCC organized a series of townhall meetings to hear citizen views on the issue. Here were some of the complaints:
- Fewer jobs for media workers
- Less variety in music on the radio
- Less community-oriented programming
- Loss of local control over programming decisions
- Less independently-produced programming
- Increased censorship of divergent views
- Less political discussion
- Inadequate emergency weather/disaster warnings
- Fewer minority-owned broadcast stations
Do any of these ring a bell with you? What is your experience?
Want to Take Action?
- Write to the FCC about their proceedings, or attend their public meetings when they discuss policy issues. Their calendar is here.
- Consider contributing time or money to Common Cause. They are a non-partisan organization that promotes honest, open, accountable government in Washington and in our state capitals. They have an ongoing effort to highlight the need for a healthy media sector in our democracy.
- Find a regional or local foundation that supports local news production. Contribute your time or money.
Want to Learn More?
- See our Elements of Democracy page and search for Freedom of the Press.
- Ashley Lutz: “These 6 Corporations Control 90% of the Media In America.”
- The Columbia Journalism Review
- University of North Carolina, School of Media and Journalism
- Pew Research Center: Acquisitions and Content Sharing Shapes Local TV News in 2013
- Radio Television Digital News Association Research: Local news by the numbers