Communication Currents

Save Local Media!

December 1, 2009
Mass Communication

The Internet, mobile phones, and other communication technology have made it quick, easy, and inexpensive for Americans to follow world events, and to keep in contact with friends and family on the other side of the planet. Despite greater and quicker access to events around the world, local media have faced increasing difficulties in recent years. These difficulties have only increased with the recent economic downturn.

Many communities and commentators were shocked and concerned at the beginning of 2009 when several mid-size newspapers closed down or drastically reduced their publication schedules in cities across the United States. Newspaper subscription numbers and advertising revenues have been in decline for many years (and continue to fall). Yet, the thought of a city without a local daily newspaper struck many as unthinkable as was clear from the response to coverage of the closures. I argue that the demise of local media represents one of the greatest threats to American democracy.

The collapse of newspapers in America hasn't been complete, but we are witnessing a simultaneous reduction in the number of overall newspapers and a greater concentration of readers among a few titles. Local newspapers are suffering the most. Taking advantage of larger markets of readers and advertisers, national news outlets like USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times have stepped into the hole left by local publishers.

Some critics, like social media guru Clay Shirky, have argued that the changes in the newspaper industry are merely the result of the medium's obsolescence. But we see a similar turn against local media in television. Nowhere is this more clearly apparent than the sustained attack on PEG – short for public access, educational, and government – television channels. Since the early days of cable television, cable companies have been required to provide space on the dial for local public access services as well as a small amount of funding for these channels drawn from subscriber fees. It was a fair exchange, given that these companies were given profitable monopolies to provide cable service and even access to public lands in order to lay cables. For the most part, these agreements were negotiated locally, ensuring that public access channels served the community.

In the past decade, cable providers and telecom companies have successfully lobbied governments in more than twenty states to change how cable services are regulated. This resulted in moving decisions from the local level to the state level. Arguing in the name of efficiency and competition, cable service providers were able to convince legislators that it is too much trouble to negotiate agreements locally and that these sorts of decisions should be made for the entire state. This seemingly minor change in telecommunications law has resulted in the elimination of dozens of public access channels as requirements to provide local services are stripped from the agreements with cable companies and the funding for public access channels is drastically reduced. A recent report published by the Alliance for Community Media and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors indicates that greater efficiency and competition (promised to lower costs) have benefited only cable company profits, left cable fees unchanged, and done irreparable damage to local public access television across the country.

Many factors have contributed to this crisis in local media, but there are two in particular that I want to concentrate on: new communication technologies and government policy. In almost every case, advances in media technology have served to increase the ease with which people are able to access information at a distance. A national newspaper in the United States was thought to be unpractical only 30 years ago (USA Today started in 1982). Yet changes in technology used to produce and distribute information have made a daily national newspaper a viable option. Similarly, in the case of cable television, the local level at which service agreements were signed was a product of the limitations of cable technology in the 1960s. These limitations have largely been overcome with the rise in new network technology.

Turning towards the role of government in these developments, recent trends in American media policy have favored aggressive strategies for the centralization of media ownership in the United States. This goes back to the changes regarding ownership limits found in the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In the case of laws regulating cable companies, Congress, the FCC, and state legislatures have been seduced by cable company claims promising better service, lower prices, and even a source of revenue for depleted state coffers. But in the case of newspapers, governments have taken a hands off approach, allowing local papers to die rather than provide them with the same sorts of supports recently granted banks and car companies.

A combination of the greed of media companies, out-of-date or indifferent government policy, and new media technologies have delivered us to the present moment in which media offerings increasingly bypass local interests and needs entirely.

Newspapers and public access television are only two areas in which local media has suffered in recent years. Independent booksellers and movie theatres across the country are in similarly difficult positions, and independent radio stations are all but a thing of the past. The demise of local media means that we now live in world where fewer companies provide us with an ever-greater percentage of our news and entertainment. This trend has only worsened with the current economic downturn as media companies have used the tough times to trim staff and services, a move that almost always reduces local services.

Some pundits (and a few corporations) have argued that there is no reason to worry since social networking sites, blogging, and other interactive media will pick up where local media have failed. Yet such arguments overlook the important role that local media play as public institutions. While your Facebook feed might tell you about people you knew in high school, it probably won't tell you anything about issues regarding local transit. The consequences of the separation of communication from local public engagement can be seen in recent research from the Pew Internet Project that convincingly shows that Internet use and mobile technology have not contributed to social isolation and have even increased levels of social interaction. Yet, the report also notes a disturbing trend that suggests that users of social networking sites (the fastest growing form of Internet use) are significantly less involved in their local communities. We communicate more, yet we increasingly behave as though our local surroundings are irrelevant.

Online connections and our ability to participate in global events through communication technologies are important and have changed our understanding of the world in which we live. However, we must not forget about the media institutions that help us to connect with the places where we live, the people with whom we share those places, and the challenges we collectively face. Going global is great, but local media still serve an important purpose in our lives. Save local media!