Journalism and Media Policy in 2011

The last ten years were tumultuous for media and journalism, with the industry shifting dramatically and new opportunities and challenges emerging. Amidst all this change, the media policies that shape everything we watch, read and hear, have had a hard time catching up.

In a recent cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review, Steve Coll of the New America Foundation wrote: “We badly require new policies and new thinking in Washington because the media policy regime we have inherited is out of date and inadequate for the times in which we live.”

As we enter 2011, a number of pressing policy decisions will confront those of us who care about the future of journalism and media.

1) The Merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal

Just before the New Year, the FCC signaled that they are likely to approve the Comcast-NBC merger with minimal conditions, giving a green light to one of the biggest media mergers in a generation and ushering in a new era of media consolidation.

The Comcast/NBC merger is troubling because it combines one of America’s most popular producers of news and entertainment with the nation’s largest cable and residential broadband provider, giving one company incredible control of what you can watch and how you can watch it on cable, online and over the air.

2) The Future of Media Consolidation

On the heels of the Comcast/NBC merger, the FCC is expected to start their 2010 review of media ownership rules (yes they are a year behind already). Congress mandates that the FCC review their media ownership limits every four years to ensure that they are still in the public interest. This is complicated by the fact that the previous rule changes dating back to 2003 are still held up in the courts.

Last time the FCC reviewed the rules, in 2006, it cited the tumultuous state of journalism (which was in part due to rampant consolidation) to justify eliminating the 30-year-old newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban. But, as former Free Press policy director Ben Scott argued at a House hearing on the future of journalism, “Uniting two failing business models will not produce a success any more than tying together two rocks will suddenly make them float.”

The evidence is clear that consolidation has led to fewer journalism jobs, less local news, and a diminishment of voices and viewpoints in the media. We need new policies that foster innovation and entrepreneurship in journalism, not more consolidation. In this next ownership review we should look for ways to tighten ownership rules and clamp down on local stations are using contractual agreements to lay off entire newsrooms and circumvent FCC regulations.

3) The FCC and FTC Journalism Reports

Both the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have been conducting in-depth investigations into how public policy can help the future of journalism. Testimony last year at the various hearings held by both agencies reinforced the vital role of public and noncommercial media in responding to the information needs of local communities and made clear that any government response will demand careful coordination across a range of issues and agencies. These are promising initiatives that could help move our media policy into the digital age.

Both agencies are planning to release reports early in 2011 that outline their findings and recommendations.

4) A Separate and Not So Equal Internet for Mobile News

As more news and information moves online, ensuring universal, affordable access to the open Internet is even more vital. In the final weeks, of 2010 the FCC approved weak, half-baked Net Neutrality rules so full of loopholes that they may be worse than nothing at all. The result is that for the first time in the history of telecommunications law, the FCC has endorsed online discrimination: That is, ISP’s now appear to have the right to favor their services and applications over others.

On the wireless Web you access from a mobile phone or device, companies like AT&T and Verizon will be free to discriminate. That means we now have two Internets in America, and what you are able to access at home may not be available on your smartphone. The FCC’s decision to split the web in two has huge implications for journalism and free speech as new and old news organization have been investing deeply in mobile apps and online news. In addition, a third of America still lacks high-speed broadband at home. With the digital divide widening, and the open Internet disappearing, the democratizing power of the web is at risk.

There are many more policy debates that will be hashed out in the coming year. All in all, 2011 promises to be another profoundly important year for media policy, and we’ll be right here helping parse out what it all means and giving you clear ways to take action and get involved.

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