By Matthew Cameron
The Federal Communications Commission’s report titled “Information Needs of Communities” probably won’t generate as much buzz as a political sex scandal, but at least one of its findings should be a cause for concern among citizens. The study concludes that “we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting” which “manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little.”
The report indicates that the decline in local reporting is a result of “dislocations caused by seismic changes in media markets.” In other words, local newspapers’ subscriber bases are drying up because readers are migrating online. Despite the limited success of services such as AOL’s Patch, online media has not been able to fill in the gap created as local papers have downsized their reporting staffs and cut back on the quantity and frequency of their publications.
This raises the question of whether demand for local news was that strong in the first place. After all, if individuals actually valued local reporting when print newspapers were still thriving, then wouldn’t they press for online news sources to offer more of it now? And if nobody was reading local stories in print papers, then what difference does it make if they vanish? Still, the mere threat of press coverage often can be enough to keep state and local governments honest. Even if citizens weren’t actively seeking out information about city council meetings, state and local elections and public sector dealings with private business, there was the possibility that they would become aware of a scandal or boondoggle through a front-page headline or a lead report on the 6 o’clock news.
Without consistent local reporting, abuses of power and general public sector incompetence are likely to proliferate and not always in cases as flagrant as the Bell City Council scandal that hit the national news last year (and that was enabled by inadequate public knowledge of a ballot initiative). Rather, mundane occurrences such as the repeated election of unqualified local politicians and the awarding of contracts to companies with inside connections but no relevant experience will happen more frequently without journalistic scrutiny and will reduce the public sector’s legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.