Network neutrality, high-speed broadband, ownership diversity, deregulation when necessary, PEG channels in the basic tier, and more money for public broadcasters/media but not until they reform the system.
Those are some of a multitude of recommendations to preserve, protect and extend local news and information in the digital age, according to a report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, released Oct. 2 by a bipartisan committee that includes a couple of former FCC chairmen, one Republican (Michael Powell) and one Democrat (Reed Hundt).
The 17-member Committee On the Information Needs In a Democracy was created by the Knight Foundation and Aspen Institute to help figure out how to keep community information flow alive and thriving in a digital age that is remaking the rules and unmaking economic models for traditional media.
The recommendations will be presented to a number of officials including current FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who is slated to comment on them at their unveiling at the Newseum in D.C., as well as U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, and National Telecommunications & Information Administration chief Larry Strickling.
The FCC is planning an inquiry into the health of the news business, though Genachowski has set no timetable for the effort, which was proposed by his predecessor, Michael Copps. An FCC spokesperson was not available to comment on whether the chairman would use the report's release as an opportunity to talk about that timetable.
"Many people are now losing the information sources they have relied on, as newspapers, TV, and radio reduce news coverage to survive financially," says the report. "In a democracy, the very idea of second-class citizenship is unacceptable; yet, for many, second-class information citizenship is looming."
The commission called TV and radio "critical news sources" but said they are unlikely to fully offset the drop in "original, verified, newspaper reporting," saying those papers often set the news agenda for broadcasters and new media.
Declaring that "the time has come for new thinking and aggressive action," the commission urged three broad objectives: "Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities; strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information; and promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community."
The commission wants more support for public media but says that journalism driven by marketplace incentives will still do the bulk of "original and verified reporting."
"The health of the private media sector is an important public-policy goal. So, too, is the independence of private media from governmental intervention on content grounds."
But the commission went further. It said that targeted deregulation may be necessary to help struggling operations. "Agencies should regularly re-examine whether rules serve the proper ends of public policy in light of changing economic and technological conditions. This includes rules regarding property rights, ownership limits, and the legal obligations of media firms," the report concluded.
But as befits a bipartisan commission, regulation got its shout-outs too.
The committee, citing Powell as presiding over the creation of the FCC's four Internet openness principles, concluded that the Internet has created a wealth of new tools to keep people informed and connected, but said that that can only happen if the broadband gap is bridged.
That means that the government's definition of Internet is too slow, and too many people don't have access to it, the commission said. The FCC this week estimated the number at between 3 and 6 million.
The commission concluded that the government needs to set "ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability," which means wireless whenever possible and enough bandwidth to download--and upload--high-def video video programming.
The commission also recommended funding libraries and other institutions as digital literacy centers, and a national campaign to promote digital literacy.
On the network-neutrality front, the commission recommends "maintain[ing] the national commitment to open networks as a core objective of Internet policy," which it defines at baseline as Powell's four openness principles. It does not mention FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's recent proposal to expand those principles, though it does say that "it is
critical that network practices do not undermine the overall environment for innovation."
The commission also gives a shout out to PEG (public, educational and government) cable channels, saying they should be "in a favored tier in terms of ease of access," meaning a government mandate that they be in the basic tier.
Public media get their marching orders in the report, which says the current economic climate for private media "could pose a crisis for democracy" and public media need to do a better job in local news. "Public broadcasting needs to move quickly toward a broader vision of public service media, one that is more local, more inclusive, and more interactive."
It recommended that "government as well as private sector donors should condition their support of public media on its reform."
That reform includes better use of new technologies. "Simply put," said the report, "our public media do not fully reflect the public nor engage with it sufficiently on the community level."
Among the government officials getting the report is Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board Chairman Ernest J. Wilson. Wilson, who was just elected chairman two weeks ago, told B&C in an interview he thought CPB was ideally positioned to help fill what he saw as a community media gap.
"At a time when the legacy print media is literally disappearing before our eyes, and the legacy broadcast media is cutting back on investigative reporting and long-form reporting, now is a tremendous opportunity—and I would say obligation—for public service media to help fill that gap, especially at the local level," Wilson told B&C.
The recommendations are the result of seven public forums and meetings, plus input from the public via the PBS Engage Web initiative.
Among the scores of action items were the following for the FCC and other federal agencies:
• Complete a national broadband strategy aimed at bringing Americans low-cost high-speed Internet access, including wireless, everywhere they want and need it.
• Establish a national target for household broadband access at speeds sufficient to support video transmission at a level of quality comparable to the household video services now delivered through cable and satellite television services.
• Adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services. Continue to use financial incentives to help spur broadband deployment in areas where it has lagged because of market conditions.
• Consider an inquiry to define the appropriate characteristics of open networks.
• Determine and clearly map the kinds of Internet connectivity American households have—looking at speed, cost, the service providers involved, and whether access is wire-based or wireless.
• Push for the inclusion of public, educational, and government cable channels in the basic cable package offered by any cable service operator.
• Use E-rate funds to support public libraries’ creation of mobile teaching labs to provide digital literacy instruction.
• Pursue spectrum policies to accommodate low-power FM and other innovations that increase the number of broadcast voices over the local airwaves.
• Promote diversity in media ownership.