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FCC report: Net has helped suffocate local news

Fixing the sorry state of local news could cost up to $1.6 billion, or about as much as Google paid for YouTube, report indicates.

Thanks to digital technologies, we have more media sources than ever to get our news from, but when it comes to covering town halls, school boards, courts, and other local news, they mostly suck.

That's the takeaway message (though definitely not in those words) in a behemoth of a report (PDF) released Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission.

The 460-plus page report, titled "The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age," is two years in the making and was led by Beliefnet co-founder and former U.S. News and World Report National Editor Steve Waldman.

If forced to sum up the entire report in a single tweet, it would probably be "The Internet has revolutionized how we gather and consume information, but meanwhile local news has been damn near suffocated." Or, as Waldman and company put it on page 262:

There were about 13,400 fewer newspaper newsroom jobs in 2010 than there were in 2006, dropping from 55,000 positions to about 41,600. Over the years, newsmagazines, local commercial radio, and local TV have reduced their newsgathering staffs, as well. At the same time, Internet sites, cable news, and public radio have created new journalism jobs.

So, the Net picked up the slack for the shrinking old media then, right? Not so, says the report. It goes on to estimate that there are roughly 5,000 less reporters covering local "accountability" beats today than there were in 2000, and even back then there weren't nearly enough to cover everything. All told, the report estimates that the number of local beat reporters would need to be more than doubled to do the job right, at a total cost of about $1.6 billion--or $265 million if we just wanted to get back to 2000 levels.

Waldman and his report team even hint at a few ways to inject some of that cash into local news, the most compelling being shifting the government's media buys for things like those "Army of One" recruiting ads or public service announcements away from national networks, and instead directing that estimated one billion dollars to local media outlets.

It's an idea so simple you have to wonder why it hasn't already been done. Turns out those same pesky technologies that helped trample the local media could also now help direct money back to them, according to the report:

In the past, it may have been more cost effective to buy national rather than local, but technological improvements have made it possible to easily buy local media placements on TV, in print and online--so that shifting ads to local news media could prove more cost-effective for taxpayers.

The report also highlights some of the clear benefits the online world has brought to the media, such as broad access, speed, diversity of voices, etc., but doesn't leave out the many ways it has also stripped revenues away from old media that we've all heard plenty about by now.

Aside from redirecting government ads to local outlets, the report also recommends putting more public documents and proceedings online, supporting nonprofit media, and offering "residencies" for journalism students to get hands-on experience working in a local newsroom.

In the digital realm, it recommends pursuing "universal broadband" access, and, without getting too much into the tangle of the Net Neutrality debate, the report also simply calls for preserving "the openness of the system that allows for small start-ups to rise up so easily."

Much of the report is fairly vanilla, but putting a price tag, no matter how hypothetical, on how much it would cost to get local news coverage up to snuff is very useful. Turns out the cost of creating a truly healthy news media (and by extension, democracy), if we use the report's high-end $1.6 billion figure, is the same amount a developer got for rebuilding the World Trade Center (or to put it in tech terms, the same amount Google paid for YouTube).