The F.C.C. Solution for Community News is So Last Century

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The new and much-quoted F.C.C. report on “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a BroadBand Age” is massive and well written, and its authors did their due diligence by holding workshops whose testimony from an array of media experts fills 711 pages. But the report’s back-to-the-future prescription for community news in the digital era is a big disappointment.

The report’s most fraught conclusion, and the one getting the most published attention:

“…in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting. This is likely to lead to the kinds of problems that are, not surprisingly, associated with a lack of accountability—more government waste, more local corruption, less effective schools, and other serious community problems. The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism—going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy—is in some cases at risk at the local level.”

Balancing data, journalism and community feedback is much more likely to produce accountability than sending a reporter to a six-hour school board hearing.

But instead of offering innovative solutions to close this gap – which does exist and is serious – the report retreats to the old, pre-digital journalistic model:

“…to get to the level of accountability journalism [in local reporting] that likely existed in 2000, the media sector would need to hire roughly 5,000 reporters, costing about $265 million…. The U.S. spends $560 billion a year on K–12 schools, with increasingly discouraging results. It would cost about $231 million a year to ensure that every school system has at least a half-time reporter covering schools.”

These old-model calculations totally ignore what could be achieved if websites, particularly hyperlocals, used their digital resources more imaginatively, and aggressively. Assigning a half-time or even full-time reporter to local schools is no guarantee of accountability. There’s a better and less-expensive way to achieve results: The website, accessing open data from the Web, draws up a list of school performance indicators — “hard” data like test results (both snapshots of how students are currently performing and what they did in earlier grades) and “softer” data like teacher evaluation and improvement and parental engagement. The data is then compared to similar data from schools in neighboring communities and from elsewhere in the metro region, especially localities with similar demographics. Finally, all the data – with chart and map visualizations that make sometimes complex metrics easy to understand — is presented to the community – both experts (including local school system officials) and the “wisdom of the crowd” for an unedited, sustained online discussion, where commenters may present data of their own.

Balancing data, journalism and community feedback is much more likely to produce accountability than sending a reporter to a six-hour school board hearing and having him/her interview four of five usual suspects for mostly meaningless one-paragraph “message” quotes – the old journalism that the FCC report apparently wants to resuscitate.

In my own experience I discovered how data, if you look at it from a couple of angles, can be especially revealing. As an example, in 2010, former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee put out a press release for the system’s reading and math test results that was headed: “DCPS Secondary School Students Demonstrate Significant Gains for Third Consecutive Year.” But when I pulled apart the data and regrouped it so I could focus on test results in Wards 7 and 8 – mostly African American and predominantly poor and where Rhee wielded her reform broom most vigorously – most secondary schools and elementary schools showed score declines. Where there was a pattern of progress it generally began under Rhee’s predecessor. The data told the true story better than Rhee’s headline.

In the new content paradigm, the reporter is no longer the central generator of information, but one part of a mosaic that includes data and feedback from the community. Because the generation of this content doesn’t require nearly as many reporters and editors as old-model journalism, the FCC’s fretful staffing costs to produce accountability are irrelevant.

Strangely, the report includes numerous footnoted citations of how data is being effectively used to do what conventional journalism can’t do.  But the authors never put it all together to re-imagine news for the digital era – the “new news.”

But I have a feeling that the new news won’t – and doesn’t need to – wait for the FCC to catch up.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a website to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories, including K-12 schools, health and wellness, housing, fun and vision.  The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.