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The Changing Face of Broadcast Journalism

Tom Butts is the Editor in Chief of TV Technology.

Much handwringing has been taking place over the last decade as the profession collectively known as "journalism" has gone through some revolutionary changes. Some pundits praise this new age of citizen-based journalism where instantaneous, on the spot, cellphone reporting by average citizens replaces the stodgy reporters of the past. The idea of citizen-based newsgathering without the filtering and analysis that is so characteristic of what constitutes "traditional" journalism has raised alarm bells both within our industry and throughout the blogosphere. Is this new era of transparency and universal access to the acquisition and distribution tools that were traditionally only available to a select few a serious threat to an educated and informed citizenry? Early on in the debate, some suggested that the government get involved and provide financial resources to support and—in some critics' eyes—"prop up" traditional journalism in an effort to stave off the eventual demise of newspapers. Fortunately ideas like this went nowhere, as well they should.

But the government did get involved by funding a multi-year report on the state of today's media landscape and while most of the conclusions are fairly predictable, it does highlight the conundrum that faces today's journalism profession in both print and broadcast.

The FCC's report "The Information Need of Communities," starts off with the fairly sobering statistic that approximately 13,400 newspaper newsroom positions have been eliminated just within the past four years and that "this has created gaps in coverage that even the fast-growing digital world has yet to fill." The report notes that local TV news broadcasts "remain excellent" but that staff cutbacks have resulted in fewer hours covering critical local issues; it also decried what it described as a minority of broadcasters "exhibiting alarming tendencies to allow advertisers to dictate content." The Internet has yet to fill this gap. "Too few Internet-native local news operations have so far gained sufficient traction financially to make enough of an impact," the report said.

The wornout adage of "doing less with more" also applies to TV stations as the report indicates that while local TV news hours rose 35 percent in the past seven years, fewer reporters are doing more work. From 2006-2009, the median of full-time news staff members declined from 32 to 29, when two-thirds of news directors reported staff cuts. Some of this can also be attributed to the recession as well.

Technology has played a role in helping broadcasters cope with declining news staffs with the increasing deployment of "one-man bands" using compact equipment, sending content over IP. Of course, Joe citizen can do that now as well, which aptly describes the dilemma facing our industry.

The reports' recommendations are fairly mild as it takes an appropriate "hands off" policy to nudge journalism into the new digital age. It recommends that information required by the FCC be made available to the public online; it calls for more government transparency; target more government advertising to local media; grow nonprofit media by developing more sustainable business models; promote universal broadband and an "open" Internet; and develop policies that target historically underserved communities.

What is the takeaway for broadcasters? The report seems to confirm and accentuate the importance that local broadcast TV and radio stations play in their communities. Hopefully that will serve as an important reminder to the commission that issued the report—which is the same commission supporting a campaign to reclaim spectrum from terrestrial broadcasters and thereby potentially weakening the local media landscape.