Collaboration in Civic Spheres

FCC: philanthropy, non-profits, transparency key to fill local news gaps

by Matt Rosenberg June 9th, 2011

SUMMARY: A new report from the Federal Communications Commission warns of an overall national deficit in professional local news reporting focused on government accountability. In response, the report recommends a number of strategies. These include philanthropy by individuals and foundations – especially place-based civic foundations – which accents the importance of strong news ecosystems and healthy news nonprofits to healthy communities; plus more robust and systematic online transparency by local and state governments; and possible changes or clarifications to the U.S. tax code to encourage the financial sustainability of non-profit media.

BACKGROUND: A working group of journalists, scholars entrepreneurs and government officials produced the FCC report. The working group was led by Steven Waldman, a former reporter and editor with Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and WallStreetJournal.com, who later founded Beliefnet.com.

KEY LINK: “Information Needs Of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape In A Broadband Age,” Federal Communications Commission report, Jun 9, 2011

KEY FINDINGS:

Some of the report’s recommendations follow.

  • Today’s U.S. media landscape is vibrant but suffers from a serious “shortage of local, professional accountability reporting.” The non-profit media sector must play a growing role in filling this gap.
  • “Philanthropists – individuals and foundations – should consider changing their approach to media. Without strong reporting, the issues philanthropists care about – whether health, environment, children, fiscal rsponsibility – are all shortchanged. The public will be less well-informed and institutions professing to solve the problems will be less accountable.” The 650 U.S. place-based foundations which currently spend $2.6 billion to strengthen communities must play an important role in supporting strong local and regional media ecosystems, putting emphasis on objective reporting, not advocacy reporting.
  • Governments, especially at the local and state levels, need to develop more systematic and robust ways of engaging citizens through transparency. They need to voluntarily put more proceedings, documents and data online which are responsive to conusmer and other public concerns –  in formats conducive to search, customization, analysis and sharing.
  • Types of local and state government data that should be more consistently and throughly disclosed online include not only baseline indicators such as campaign contributions and financial disclosure by public officials, but also audits of government agencies, health and safety inspection reports of various institutions, environmental citations and disciplinary actions against professionals such as attorneys and physicians.
  • Public data sets should be put online in standardized machine-readable formats which make it easier for programmers to develop new software applications that convey the data in more user-friendly ways, including the combining of one agency’s data with that of another. Government documents posted online should ultimately also be created in “searchable, analyzable formats.” Additionally, “data should be archived so that information, once posted, does not disappear over time.”
  • State and larger regional and local legislative bodies should create and fund two positions to increase maximum public value from transparency initiatives: a senior transparency officer to audit performance of the jurisdiction’s departments or agencies and to coordinate training in best practices; and a public information ombudsperson to mediate public information disputes promptly. Each state, regional and local government should also consider developing a single data and documents online portal for text, audio and video – rather than park online public information within departmental silos. Another needed reform is the posting online for at least 72 hours before a final vote, of all non-emergency legislation, to heighten public and media review.
  • The Council on Foundations or a similar group should convene non-profit tax experts and nonprofit news entrepreneurs to study and issue recommendations on what sorts of U.S. tax code changes or clarifications would “better enable nonprofit media to meet the information needs of communities…” The report could help guide future changes. Current IRS code against non-profit lobbying may discourage 501c3 non-profit media from issuing commentaries which complement objective reporting, and thus can hinder development of sustainable funding models. As well, nonprofit media sites must count advertising as taxable business income under the current code. This may also be ripe for alteration, if the aim is to encourage growth of non-profit media to serve the public interest.

RELATED:

Transparency Is A Two-Way Street,” Sunlight Foundation blog, Matt Rosenberg (Founder – Public Eye Northwest/Public Data Ferret)

Darkness Can Be A Costly Proposition,” Intersect, Matt Rosenberg

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