Four hundred seventy eight pages… that’s what it took to conclude that the state of local news in the digital age is in a serious state o’ crisis, with apologies to O’Casey.

This is the latest from the FCC on the sorry state of local news in the digital age. Not only did the FCC prepare the report at taxpayer expense but additionally paid for a commissioned news piece on paidcontent.org FCC Report Cites Lack Of Local News, But Has No Ideas To Fill The Gap.

The findings are not surprising, “There’s a big gap in local news reporting. There are fewer newspaper reporters covering “essential beats” like courts, schools, local affairs. The number of reporters in key places of government has dropped considerably. In New Jersey, for example, the number of statehouse reportesr (sic) dropped from 35 to 15 between 2003 and 2008. In the same time period, California went from 40 to 29; in Texas from 28 to 18; in Georgia, from 14 to 5.
Daily newspapers cut their editorial spending by $1.6 billion per year from 2006 to 2009; staff has shrunk more than 25 percent since 2006…
The report describes local TV as a kind of news wasteland. The stations are generally pumping up the volume of news while reducing staff, and give short shrift to serious topics like education, health care, and government. The report cites a TV news study by the Annenberg School of Communications that found such hard news topics took up a little over one minute in a 30-minute news broadcast. While coverage of city government withers, crime news proliferates. And the report notes the disturbing trend of “pay-for-play” arrangements, as well as the airing of “video press releases” masquerading as news.
Cable news is thriving on a national level but remains stunted at a local level. Only about 25 to 30 percent of the population can watch a local news show on cable.”

The Annenberg Lear Center study which came out in May 2010 Lear Center Report: sports & weather, crime, fluff dominate L.A. TV news makes a frightening case for the diminishing amount of substantive news and the value placed on important stories by news managers.

Look – it’s no secret that consultants have ruined local news – as well as the lack of commitment from station owners, managers, news directors and others of fiscal ilk. News was never profitable and for the vast majority of the 20th century, news was not profitable. In the late 1980s when it became essential to stations that news make money, all semblance of reality was lost. Now shows that proclaim to be news programs are dominated by traffic and weather – because that’s what consultants say the public cares most about… This is the most ephemeral of all substance… the least consequential… and yet it dominates in terms of new devices, maps and computer animations and a significant commitment of the total time of each news program.

Is it any wonder why so few audience surveys find that audiences treat news programs seriously, or make the evening news appointment television night after night, or where loyalty to a program or presenter was once a staple and is now a mater of convenience or happenstance? We’ve polluted the audience by offering features and soft stories as early as 5 or 7 minutes into the programs…. features which once would have been relegated to the end of the news show as a ‘kicker’ but which now appear earlier and earlier each show in order to give the audience something ‘light’ and ‘entertaining’ and ‘enjoyable’ as opposed to something which the editors felt was necessary and important and consequential.

This isn’t just a situation (problem) with local news. Watch many of the network programs and you can see the same symptoms about story selection and placement – an erosive degredation of what news ought to be presented contrasted with what is presented in the guise of news so that the audience will stay tuned.

We wonder why at a time when audiences say they’ve never been better informed thanks to digital content when in fact it appears that they have never known as little or less about so many stories, in spite of digital technology and delivery.

The Los Angeles Times published an interactive feature called the California Budget Balancer. It isn’t the first such model but it is worth attention and acknowledgment. Just as an example of the choices that one must make, the consequences of each decision, and the impact that every decision has to countless millions of citizens is valuable. Additionally – as a piece of media – it challenges and engages the audience to experiment with clicks and choices.
This is multimedia done well.

The national budget – state budgets – local government and agency budgets are all bloated and out of sync with incomes; yet visualizing this is difficult for both lay people as well as professionals. The Times has made a contribution to understanding using multimedia.

The recent gas explosion that destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California offers another example of police and local authorities using the drape of “national security” to push the media back from the scene, to refuse to answer questions, and to deny access to maps and other documents that would give knowledge and comfort to residents, rate payers and tax payers.

Before the dawn of the morning following he explosion I was ordered back from an intersection more than a mile from the fire by a sergeant of the Pacifica (California) police acting as part of a mutual aid response. Why couldn’t we remain where we were parked – and had been parked for some 12 hours? “National Security” was his response as if by declaring those 2 words it precluded any further discussion or need for explanation. One could surmise if we refused to move the skies would be filled with black helicopters and the streets with black SUVs as federal law enforcement would leap from these vehicles as if clowns packed into too small a car in a circus ring.

“National Security” is all one needs to say now in defense of any argument or inquiry. Why can’t the utility PG&E release maps of outs gas lines? “National Security.” I suppose they are worried that terrorists with backhoes will soon be digging up streets to cause unimaginable destruction.

I suppose if I trusted those making the assertion, that in fact there was a real threat I’d be more willing to comply with their instruction. It just so often seems to ring like a hollow excuse. It becomes a wild card for which there is no argument; it trumps all other discussion.

But we have been too-often toyed with before. We are told we can’t make pictures at an airport or along a public waterfront where joggers run and mothers stroll with baby carriages because it might give advantage to our enemies. How about the damage this Draconian approach might cause to a free and open society? Is this truly for our safety or is it window dressing in the absence of a better, more effective plan? It reminds me of the months following 9/11 when the California Highway Patrol assigned a patrol cruiser parked at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge as a final bulwark of security against a cascading truck aimed at the bridge towers. I so often saw the officer in that car asleep in his seat that I wondered how much real security was being provided as opposed to what might otherwise seem to be window dressing.

It is frightening to witness the erosion of media protection. It seems to be a step in the wrong direction to limit access, to thwart entry, and to restrict the free flow of information. If there is a real threat, then there is no argument. If there is no reason except for the desire of authorities to conduct their work free from the eyes of the media and the public, then this must be fought.

I have just about had my fill of complaints about contemporary news coverage… what “the media” isn’t covering, should cover, how it slants and skews politics, and its multitude of sins – real and imagined – by everyone who wants to be critical – and none of whom is willing to do much more than complain bitterly, loudly, and usually without specifics to back up their argument or assertion.

“If you want good news look in the sports pages!” That’s an old saw uttered by news men and women defending their craft against an audience whose justification for not reading, listening or watching coverage of the events of their era is their claim that news is so depressing.

Depressing?  Tough.  Sorry… but tough.  I’d say – honest.  I’d say realistic. 
I’d suggest news is the first draft of history; that these are troubling times, news should portray the times we live in and not a Varnish or Pollyanna view like a rotogravure. 
News is based on the currency that you need to know, understand and ingest significant events, thoughtful evaluations and interpretations in opinion columns, and have a contextual, deep understanding of news makers in a complex world in order to make intelligent decisions and navigate the shoals of life.

News isn’t supposed to be happy, or filled with feel-good-isms.   News isn’t an alternative for a list of firsts compiled by Guinness Book of Records on the bar.  It isn’t about bromides or pontificating  politicians; it shouldn’t be point-counterpoint reduced to platitudes and silliness as if an argument over the Bickerson’s breakfast table.

These are serious times demanding serious and sober coverage that reflects the spectrum of argument and focusing on decision points. News should be presented in many voices and through a prism reflecting and refracting the many points of light representing all angles, sharp points and all colors.

Witness the emergence and growth of good news.  It is pervasive.  On television news shows happy stories which were once relegated to the close of the program and were called kickers, aimed at leaving the audience with a smile on their face, now vie for more prominent placement in the middle of nightly shows.  The producers have been urged by consultants to fill the programs with features and enterprises that are not so serious, that will not be so depressing that audiences will change the dial in order to find more entertaining fare elsewhere.

There is a parody of good news for a version of The New York Times. There is even an amusing video showing audience reaction. Alternative news sites featuring only good news can be found at the Good News Network as well as Good News Daily.

Is this attributable to the growth of McPress? The USATodays and other entertainment shows which seem to hold such audience sway? Is it about the loss of editors as Gene Weingarten recently wrote in the Washington Press and I commented about here?

People will tell surveys that they long for serious news and would read or watch that if it was available. I think that’s how they want to be heard by the pollster but is not reflected in their reality. The graduate students I teach barely scratch the surface of the new papers they see, sites they scan, or programs they tune to. I recently asked a large group of professional communicators who work for a public consortium in California how many papers they read — 3 hands went up. How many read more than a single news site – 2 more hands. The CEO later confided that the lack of news knowledge and savvy among the organization was more than a little troubling.

Is this the result of years of neglect for issues such as civics, or history?  Is finding news via search a balm for actually reading more thoroughly – is what we think we need to know sufficient for what we really ought to know?

News isn’t supposed to be easy.  It can, should and does celebrate accomplishment and personal bests.  But it must also include the dark underside of the world we live in – for only when that is exposed can there be any real hope for change.  For those who find it sufficient not to read or watch, or to seek out saccharin sites with only good things they are living like ostriches.

August is not usually known as a great month for news. The President is often on a vacation while Congress has abandoned Washington to return to their districts. Political campaigns are traditionally in hibernation raising money. Families are on holiday and companies generally wait to unveil new products until after Labor Day.

What little news that does occur runs the risk of being beaten to death, rehashed and regurgitated until all that remains is a little drool, spittle that eeks from the lips of pundits and prognosticators, and a second tier of opinion-makers who are not-so-important that they could take vacation lest they might miss their only chance of the year to be quoted.

August news stories have the same foul odor of rotting food left out in the hot sun… stories that stretch on for weeks… when senior executives abandon NYC for the Hampton’s or the Cape leaving more junior news people in charge who embrace, indeed flog same ol’ stories for days and days.  It is so much safer to go with a 2nd, 3rd or 15th day lead than chart a new course or find something more compelling when what’s old and loud can be resuscitated for another lead.

Last August coverage focused on the proposed death panels associated with health care reform.  Stop – if just for a moment – is it really credible that the United States government would propose death panels for its citizens as a matter of public policy?  Does that Mengele-esque concept pass the credulity test?

This August we have the Manhattan mosque.  In a year’s time, with reflection, will this be about a proposed building or rather the question was this suggested mosque about actually building it, or merely asking for permission?  Was the media, in turn much of the public, played by the question – what if we said, “No”?  What if we said there wasn’t the right of freedom of religion or of speech?  What if we had said that we do not honor the tenants of the Constitution, or in outright rejection made it globally clear that we were a nation where there was such repression that the US resembled a nation ruled by religious zealots and where freedoms were not respected?

The musical The Fantastics, music by Harvey Schmidt, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, a play itself about hate and bigotry capture the essence of confusion about what was really what… in a song called “Plant a Radish” they wonder about the mystery of raising children to act and do as their parents want. In a more macro version, did we sing this same chorus asking ourselves what we thought, what we wanted, and what we thought was the question, but in fact, we missed it?

In Washington you usually don’t challenge some one’s plan but rather their motives, that is, you seek to find out the why a particular individual supporting a law or idea is gaining credence and destroy him or her instead of attacking the issue directly.  Here that old standard seems to have been turned on its head… instead of attacking the motives of those responsible we have attacked the plan itself.  The mosque, whether a single room as part of a larger community center, in many ways a Muslim equivalent of a YMCA, is not the issue as much as its proponents wanted to place the question, a challenge, in front of the American people.

Are we truly as good as we would have ourselves believe?  Did we get played by the media, many of whom went into swirl mode trying to breathe life into an emotional reaction instead of looking at what may lie beneath the noise?

And just in passing, supposing this mosque is approved and construction money can be obtained… does any one really expect the trade unions to willingly join in the building process?  Will steel arrive as planned?  Or other building supplies and  crafts people?  Will the NY Fire Department expeditiously sign off on permits and licenses?  In New York, a city renown for its distinct reactions, does any one think this building has a serious expectation of any completion?

This wasn’t about a building, this was about the American process.  Welcome to another August; September begins in just two more weeks.

Let’s face it, congressional speeches rank pretty low on the media’s food chart of what New York based executives think American audiences care about.  While there is still beat coverage on Capitol Hill, few speeches seem to make it on network radio or TV, and except for CSPAN, there is precious little video coverage of what’s said in the well of the House and Senate. What little is said is reduced to snippets of sound and not substantive blocks or speeches.

That’s what makes Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) Thursday remarks about funding medical coverage for first responders to 9/11 all the more surprising.  His passionate speech, some will call it angry and emotional, was aired on both morning and evening newscasts Friday.  ABC’s World News Tonight treated it as a stand alone sound bite while NBC Nightly News incorporated it into a larger story.  But 48 hours after his remarks, by midday Saturday, the speech was watched almost 500,000 times on You Tube alone.

This poses the question – was it because he was emotional or did it merely tap the emotional third rail represented by 9/11?  Was that passion unusual for the House?  Online coverage Congressman Anthony Weiner gets loud, calls out GOP for 9/11 health bill made reference to Weiner as a modern day Mr. Smith, a modern day James Stewart, the incarnate member of the Congress, imbued with passion and commitment and oratory.

From my perspective I wonder whether there is a greater-than-imagined appetite for stirring oratory?  I wonder if the American media might steal a page from British coverage of Parliament, for instance Prime Minister’s Question Time,  where there has always been greater attention paid to the spoken word and disagreement.

No doubt the overwhelming amount of live coverage from Congress, as well as state houses and local elected offices and boards, is dismal – stiff, formal, impersonal and quite often less than articulate. But it it refreshing to see and hear compelling speeches. And judging from the response to Representative Weiner, networks ought to take note that the public does feel well-served when they can hear and see for themselves.

On the face of this it is a risk of producing “boring” TV. Or is it?

In Bell, California, population just 40,000, a bedroom suburb of Los Angeles there is no media watchdog.
Perhaps that’s why the city’s Chief Administrative Office who began in 1993 at a salary of $72,000 a year was given successive raises to bloat his 2010 salary to $787,637 dollars a year! By contrast President Obama’s salary is just $400,000.

No one noticed. No one reported it. The public was screwed.

In Bell where 1 in 6 residents lives below the poverty line the Los Angeles Times discovered Is a city manager worth $800,000 a year? the Assistant City Manager made $376,288 a year, the mayor and three of four part-time officials made $90,000 and $100,000 a year, and the city police chief earned $457,000. The city police force has 50 officers, by comparison, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck is paid $307,000 to manage a force of 1,300.

No local paper or radio reports on Bell. There is no daily newspaper. TV rarely covers Bell except for a traffic accident or helicopter chase on the freeways, episodic events that have little impact and only passing interest.

Few people obviously paid sufficient attention. I suppose they trusted their officials would behave responsibly and do the right thing, not rape the city treasury and the public’s faith. They were too busy working, living, being with their families – there was no one from the media to keep the officials honest – covering routine hearings, meetings, budget drafts… the pick and shovel work, what used to be called shoe leather of local reporters.

An Associated Press story on the city’s situation captured this quote, “This is America and everything should be transparent,” plumber and longtime Bell resident Ralph Macias said.”

The AP’s story continued, “By law, the council would have had to approve the contracts in an open session, but several residents complained that officials are loathe to explain what they are doing and quick to race through matters at public meetings with little discussion.”

But no one was there to notice.

And that’s what happens when you cut the media, cut reporters, look to savings the can be accrued by off-shoring local reporting to writers in other countries, even as far away as India who watch local meetings online and seek to synthesize what really occurred?

Some will call this the “new media.” I do not think it is much to crow about.