FCC report dramatizes media industry’s dependence on student labor

While it’s uncertain how the American public will get news in the future, and who’ll pay the cost of reporting it, it is increasingly clear that the media will rely on unpaid college students not just as trainees but as front-line news gatherers.

An exhaustive survey of the media landscape commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission includes among its recommendations that the donor community underwrite “journalism residencies” for new graduates along the model of residencies for newly graduated physicians. The report envisions that these “residents” could serve to coordinate the production of original content by the 216,000 students enrolled in journalism schools nationwide.

The report, “The Information Needs of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age,” was compiled by FCC staffer and former journalist Steven Waldman. It is receiving attention mostly for its dire portrayal of the state of the news business, both economically (newspapers reduced their newsroom budgets by more than 25 percent between 2006 and 2009, and their staffs are now at their smallest levels since the mid-1970s) and substantively (one-third of local TV stations air 30 minutes of news a day or less, and 520 stations broadcast none at all).

That the FCC is taking an interest at all in the content of journalism will give purists a case of the creepy-crawlies. There is understandable anxiety when regulators who fixate on “wardrobe malfunctions” start asking about whether there is a role for the government in generating “better” news coverage.

Fortunately, the Waldman report prescribes no direct government regulatory intervention; the closest it comes is a suggestion that the government consider redirecting its own considerable ($1 billion+ annually) spending of advertising dollars to support the locally generated news broadcasts that are in scarce supply.

The study mainly is useful as a snapshot (and at 465 pages, it’s more like a feature-length movie) of the state of the media industry and of the trends that have emerged since the economy cratered in 2008-09 and took more than 15,000 salaried journalism jobs with it.

Waldman dramatizes the erosion of education coverage in the mainstream media — Tacoma’s News Tribune is down to one reporter responsible for 15 school systems and seven colleges — and the industry’s growing dependence on college students as content creators. A number of the most-heralded alternative news startups — from “The Local” at the City University of New York to Arizona State’s Cronkite News Service — are heavily or entirely staffed by college journalists.

But the report also — perhaps to an unfair degree — emphasizes the shortcomings of building a news organization around student labor. It cites “quality control” issues with student work, as well as heavy turnover, lack of institutional memory, and gaps in the academic calendar when students go away on break.

The “residency” proposal is an intriguing one that merits more discussion, if only because the use of a privately funded “assignment editor” may liberate student reporters to more aggressively cover their own campuses. Faculty-supervised “news labs” have, at times with excellent results, focused on news external to the campus. While such projects can provoke controversy, it is not the type of controversy that is likely to put a faculty adviser’s job in peril. It remains to be seen whether journalism schools will exhibit the same fortitude if and when student reporters turn their scrutiny inward.