There is a shortage of in-depth local journalism needed to hold government agencies, schools and businesses accountable, the federal agency that regulates television broadcasters concludes in a new report.
The dearth of reporting comes despite an abundance of news outlets in today's multimedia landscape, the report says.
The report being released Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission is the product of an 18-month effort to explore the turmoil sweeping the traditional media business in the U.S. — particularly daily newspapers.
Newspapers have seen a sharp drop in revenue because of the weakening economy and a shift by advertisers to free or cheaper alternatives on the Internet. That has forced newspapers to cut staff and shrink their publications. The report says staffing levels at daily newspapers have fallen by more than 25 percent since 2001.
"A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little," the report says.
The report's recommendations include creating public affairs cable channels similar to C-SPAN at the state level, easing tax rules for non-profit news organizations and directing more federal advertising spending to local news media.
But the FCC report also makes clear that the First Amendment limits the government's role in shaping the future of the media industry.
"Government is not the main player in this drama," it says.
The report's lead author, Steve Waldman, said the study found media variety and abundance. Broadcast outlets, cable networks, non-profit websites and other media ventures are offering consumers more news choices than ever.
But they are still not filling the journalism gap left by the contraction of newspapers, said Waldman, co-founder of the religion website Beliefnet.com and a former national editor at US News & World Report.
As a result, the FCC report warns, "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."
Responding to the findings, Ken Paulson, president of the American Society of News Editors, said that "while there are probably fewer reporters sitting in city council and municipal board meetings ... America's newspapers have not abandoned investigative journalism."
He said newspapers can do unprecedented investigative work using sophisticated high-tech tools. He cited database analysis and sophisticated online mapping programs, which can provide readers with detailed information about their individual neighborhoods.
"The watchdog spirit is very much alive," Paulson said.