Q&A with FCC Report Head Writer Steve Waldman, Part One

"We actually have to pay attention to this and if we don’t, there are going to be severe consequences."

Two weeks ago, the FCC released its long-awaited, 365-page report, “The Information Needs of Communities.” The report’s chief writer, Steve Waldman—co-founder of News Corp.’s Beliefnet and a former Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report staffer—has been doing the rounds this week, sounding alarms about the precipitous drop in local accountability reporting outlined in his tome, and selling and defending recommendations some have called “disappointing.” Among those recommendations: the creation of state SPANs in every state; doing away with the localism proceeding and enhanced disclosure; funneling federal government advertising, for things like military recruitment, to local media; and, requiring local TV stations to put disclosures, such as pay-as-you pay, online. Conspicuously absent: A hefty government-signed check.

Last Friday, CJR’s Joel Meares met with Waldman in midtown Manhattan to discuss the reaction to his report, the enormous task of putting it together, and specific criticisms of its recommendations. This is the first part of an edited transcript of that conversation. A second part will be published tomorrow.

What have you made of the responses so far?

To summarize, it would be: good report, disappointing recommendations. Conservatives like that the recommendations were restrained and liberals were disappointed that the recommendations were restrained.

Was it the reaction you were expecting?

I don’t think of the recommendations as being particularly restrained, but they are in the sense of what the normal grooves of this discussion are. If the way you judge “bigness” is Fairness Doctrine and regulatory intervention, program guidelines, or massive new infusions of money into PBS and NPR—if those are pretty much how you decide whether something is big or not—then that’s true. We didn’t call for massive new government subsidies, and we were against the Fairness Doctrine.

But we made a lot of effort to try to come up with some ideas that were innovative, pragmatic, and practical, and that would actually be effective and not just push people’s buttons. Like the advertising idea—is that a small thing, or a big thing? [Note: one recommendation was for the federal government to direct its near-$1 billion national advertising budget to local media.] Is that a liberal idea or a conservative idea? The money there is twice the size of the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In reports about the report, that recommendation hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the others.

I guess one disappointing but totally not-surprising thing when you write a 365-page report is that people mostly focus on the high-level analytic point and the recommendations. I feel pretty good about the press coverage of the high-level finding, which is this combination of many parts of the media landscape being very vibrant, but there being a couple of problem areas that are worth really addressing. (And one of them is really serious: local accountability reporting.)

But I think there are a lot of secondary points that are interesting in the report. For instance, I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the role of the nonprofit sector in all this. The nonprofit sector is really very different than what I would have thought of it as and what a lot of people think of it as—it’s playing a bigger and different role. It’s very diverse. The policy implications of that are different.

People tend to think that the alternative to commercial media is PBS. Our view is that PBS and NPR are really important, but there’s this much broader world of nonprofit media now. The sources of innovation there, and the public policy implications, are different. Part of what makes this hard is that they’re different in each case; there is like eight to nine different subcultures in the nonprofit sector. They add up to a pretty significant part of the media system, at least when we’re talking about accountability reporting, but each one of them is kind of small and on their own—public access channels, low-power FM, state SPANS, and, probably most prevalently, this world of nonprofit websites, which is really important.

Is it fair to say that the report’s attitude towards that sector is to free things up, allow more movement and innovation, and to just get out of the way of change there?

That is fair. We started off with the premise that the nonprofit sector really is going to be an important element. That, I think, is one of the more important conclusions. Then we go, okay, well, what can we do about that? We first look at obstacles, the low-hanging fruit. People are trying to do incredible, creative things, and we should at least not make it harder for them.

There are a couple of things here. There is the big one: universal broadband and an open Internet. You have to get that right and you have to keep pushing ahead on that if you want to have digital news models to work. That’s important despite being obvious.

Then there is the tax issue. One of the things we tried to be careful about relates to a joke you’ve probably heard. A drunk is looking for his car keys under a street lamp and someone asks why he’s looking for it there. He says, “That’s where the light is.” You don’t want to assume that FCC solutions are the answer to all problems just because that’s what you have handy. If it turns out that tax issues are actually the bigger obstacle than FCC rules, rather than pretending that it’s really FCC rules, we just thought, “Let’s talk about tax rules.” [One recommendation is for changes or clarifications to the US tax code to streamline donations to nonprofits and make it clearer what qualifies as a nonprofit.]

We had enough people tell us there were these inconsistencies that it made us worry. We felt like it was a little outside of our expertise to get all the way granular, to say, “Okay, change section XX…” But it was clear that the tax issues were important, it was clear that they were potentially an obstacle to innovation and that we needed to get to the next level. (You might have seen that the Knight Foundation and Partners have announced a task force to figure out the tax issue and make recommendations, which is great. That’s exactly the right next step.)

Hopefully, that will lead to clarifications from the IRS or maybe legislative changes if that’s necessary. It’s a little hard to know. It’s like a slow-motion recommendation where it could end up being anything from a minor thing to a hugely important recommendation, but we won’t actually know for six months or something like that. We’ve sort of launched a process that could lead to something important but we won’t really know.

Another obstacle was revenue. It doesn’t relate only to nonprofits but the solutions are slightly different with the nonprofits than they are with commercial guys. There is some disappointment that we didn’t come out with a recommendation for a big new national government spending fund that would give grants to nonprofit news websites, the way the Downie-Schudson report did. But I think we came up with some ideas that could achieve some of the same goals and potentially actually happen.

It’s a fair question to ask: Aren’t reports supposed to plant a flag all the way out here, and not worry too much about what’s achievable right now? I think the answer is that there are different kinds of reports. There are some reports that should do that, particularly if you’re independent and not really worried about what you’re going to achieve this year or next year, you’re more trying to establish an argument for a long-term change in thinking. We were more focused on pragmatic solutions that could have an impact soon, and could have a chance of happening.

One of the big lines of the report is that “Government is not the main player in this drama.” Is that concept a core philosophical belief or is that something driven more by pragmatism?

I didn’t start off with an assumption that government shouldn’t be the main player. I have no ideological disposition about the government taking major roles in things when appropriate. It’s more that when you look at the particulars of how it could work, in none of the cases did it make sense to me, and in some of the cases there was real risk that you could make things worse. If you look at the recommendations, again, a billion dollars is twice the size of the CPB’s budget. If we had proposed a 50 percent increase in the size of the CPB budget that would have been viewed as a big, dramatic, radical thing. So we proposed moving twice that amount to local media and that’s somehow nothing.

But if you get down the particulars and look at some of the ways you could have a big government role, I think each one of them has real problems to it. For instance, the proposal that we tax advertising and then give the money in grants to worthwhile local media seems to have at least two problems with it. One is that advertising is the main source of revenue for local media. To tax advertising right now is going in the wrong direction. And if you’re taxing advertising, you’re basically saying, “We really don’t like the commercial media and we’re casting our lot only with the nonprofit media.” I don’t agree with that. I think it has to be a mix of commercial and non-commercial. As you can tell from the report, I’m very supportive of nonprofit media, but not at the expense of commercial media. It seems like we need both right now.

Then you have other questions. If you had a subsidy of some sort, how could the government implement something like that? I’m not a purist who’s saying it’s absolutely impossible for the government to ever distribute any money to journalism. The government does it now. Newshour gets government money; it seems to work well. But the more you get into accountability journalism, I think the tougher the issues get, and you come up against a “picking winners” issue. You don’t want a situation where you end up in the nonprofit sector privileging one group over another. Are you going to give it all to PBS and NPR? And none of it to the new websites? At a time when they’re trying to get traction? You could end up killing them in the crib.

A response to that might be that while it seems it would be excruciatingly difficult to fairly allocate funds, does that necessarily mean you shouldn’t recommend that we try?

I think we did recommend that we try in two really important ways. One is: let’s get more advertising into the market. Using the government’s spending power, in other spheres, is actually viewed as a legitimate thing. The other thing is that there is a big subsidy for nonprofit media: it’s called the charitable deduction. This is a really important point. There are two systems currently for subsidizing nonprofit media. One is the direct grants system through CPB; the other is the charitable contributions system, which happens through the tax cut. They both have a role. But I think given the diversity of different players in the nonprofit sector, the charitable contribution system is arguably a more effective way of doing it. You are piggybacking on the judgments of consumers. So, it has a good market element to it in the sense that these websites or entities still have to do good work and they have to convince readers and viewers—or philanthropists—that they’re worthwhile, not a government grant-making body.

I think that that is a really important piece of the puzzle. And it sort of works. We’ve seen evidence of it. The government in effect already subsidizes the Columbia Journalism Review and Mother Jones and American Spectator and the National Review Foundation, and all sorts of nonprofit media. It’s not a bad system.

We came out very strongly against reducing the budget for CPB and suggested some structural reforms that could make the money go a lot farther. We came out for this billion dollar ad fund. We came out for a cleaner nonprofit tax system. And then we came out suggesting that some of the money from spectrum auctions should go to a technology information fund. You add all that up and it’s a little bit surprising to me how it’s been cast. It didn’t quite fit the normal mold of what media policy arguments usually focus on.

Going back to the beginning of the report, when you’re faced with a task like this and told what you’re expected to do, how do you even begin?

We first broke it up by topics and sectors and what the different trends were. We mapped out what we needed to know and then we looked at what resources we had—meaning, who within the agency might know something about a topic—and when we identified gaps we commissioned research papers.

They were more like magazine articles. My main news experience was in print news magazines. When you were doing a big cover story on a huge topic and you didn’t have a lot of time, you switched into this system method. You have reporters all over the place and they write what were called reporting memos. They were not really meant to be camera-ready things, but they were really detailed and included all the interviews and thoughts that a particular reporter would have on a particular slice. Then they’d all come into headquarters and someone would stitch them together. To some extent, we did that. I tried to do some research in every area myself, so that I would have a nuanced feel for each topic and not be in a position where I had to rely just on a memo.

We added to that the normal tools of the FCC. We put out a public notice and we got more than a thousand comments. Some of them were two hundred pages. When we say comments, they’re not Tweets. We had a couple of hearings and then there was a literature review.

We weren’t the first ones to tackle this topic. We would not have been able to do this report without the work that Pew had done, and Nieman, and Columbia, and the Knight Foundation. A lot of the examples people are pulling out as examples of our great research was not our research at all, it was Pew or Nieman or someone like that.

It’s very clearly cited though.

Absolutely. The word “Pew” appears more than the word “the.”
There were areas where we thought there hadn’t been as much research done. There, we hired reporters and did research. Local TV news, for example.

As you say, there have been so many of these “future of news” reports and tomes. Is there one or two you can point to as being he most valuable, from which you drew the most information?

Obviously ours! [Laughing] They each have different strengths and they each had slightly different missions. I think the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Citizens in a Democracy made a really important contribution by saying that this isn’t just about media. In the new world, people have different ways of getting information, including not using media. They were really the ones who highlighted the point that you have to look at things like government transparency, government databases, the role of libraries, schools, and things like that. The name of our report at the end was “The Information Needs of Communities.” It had initially been “The Future of Media and the Information Needs of Communities.” For shorthand, we had mostly referred to it early on as “future of media,” but as we got into it and became more conscious of the other parts of the ecosystem, we came to the conclusion that the new title was a more inclusive term that includes media but also includes things like government disclosure and putting data out, which ends up being an important part of the riddle.

The Downie-Schudson report really nailed it in terms of the focus on certain types of reporting and being very clear-headed about reporting as opposed to numbers of outlets or content volume. That’s an important distinction and something we emphasized a lot in our report, too.

Then the Pew study of Baltimore was a very important study. [The study showed a marked lack of original reporting in local news and a prevalent tendency to reprint or repackage information that was already reported.] They did a content analysis that looked at the question: What is the underlying source of some of the reporting for these stories? It’s perhaps the most misunderstood thing about the modern media landscape—with the sense that we have this tremendous abundance, how could there be a shortage of anything?

It struck me that the report is a balance of optimism and pessimism, or at least a sobering acknowledgment of the challenges. But ultimately it concludes on an optimistic note—that should the suggested changes be adopted, this could be the best media system we’ve ever had. Are you ultimately more optimistic?

It’s sort of this conditional optimism—there’s a big “if” to the optimism. If we address this one area of concern, we will have the best media system we’ve ever had. If we don’t, we have really serious problems. That’s the weird thing about the message. It’s not like I’m conditionally optimistic because I think it’s all going to get better on it’s own. We actually have to pay attention to this and if we don’t, there are going to be severe consequences. But if we do, there are so many other things going for us right now, that you really could have the best of both worlds.

That’s a tough message. And government reports particularly tend to be one or the other. It’s like, “A Nation at Risk,” or… well, I guess there aren’t that many happy government reports. And there are evangelists on both sides of this argument. There are people who think that the market will solve everything and there are people who think it’s all going to hell. I just don’t agree with either of those things. I think the truth is a little more complex than that. This, A, makes it harder to appeal to those groups, and, B, just makes it harder to concisely convey that. It would be easier to have a wake-up call if you were just saying everything sucks, but everything doesn’t suck. It wouldn’t be true.

The second part of this interview will be published tomorrow.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,