The fight for public airwaves.
As society gulps down more and more digital services, it's also rapidly moving away from consuming media via traditional television channels. That's led federal regulators and TV broadcasters to the conclusion that airwaves used for TV can now be auctioned off for billions of dollars. But now a group of activists is trying to steer the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadcast spectrum auction into a way to strengthen local journalism and community-information projects.
The Free Press Action Fund, a project by digital media campaigner Free Press, has this week launched a new campaign aimed at getting funds raised by public broadcasters during the auction of their airwaves invested into hyperlocal, quality journalism that will help communities get the information they desperately need. This new style of media, publicly-owned and locally-focused, would mark a sea change from the current trend of media that's moving away from serving the needs of local communities, according to the Free Press Action Fund.
"The way that most media outlets make money today [is] through ads, or clicks, or shares, or that type of model, and what's different about this model is that people who get money from the fund wouldn't be interested in how many clicks or stories they get, but the impact it has on a community, and how's it serving the public," Mike Rispoli, director of Free Press' News Voices project in New Jersey, told Motherboard over the phone. "It's a way to push back against the recent trend that we're seeing in media which is listicles, clickbait, and sensationalism that drives a lot of traffic but do very little to serve the audience."
"This auction of the public airwaves gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the crisis in local news,"
The FCC started its latest broadcast incentive auction back in the spring of 2016 in an attempt to concentrate television broadcasters' use of spectrum inside a narrower band, freeing up bandwidth for commercial opportunities such as selling it off to wireless companies. Essentially, broadcasters could sell their licenses and stop broadcasting, sell but maintain their signal through channel sharing, or "move down the dial" from UHF (Ultra high frequency) to VHF (Very high frequency) channels.
This initial auction was completed in June, with US broadcasters agreeing to clear 126 MHz of spectrum, but only if they were paid collectively $86 billion by the FCC. As the second part of the auction (known as the forward auction) went ahead in August, wireless carriers bid only $22 billion to acquire the spectrum space—not the amount the broadcasters collectively wanted. A second round saw broadcasters lower their demands to $54.6 billion, but the $22 billion offer from wireless carriers didn't budge.
Now heading into another round of negotiations, the Free Press Action Fund says there are at least 54 public TV stations standing to profit from the auction—but that money belongs to the public.
"This auction of the public airwaves gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reverse the crisis in local news and reimagine how local communities can get the information they need," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund, in a statement. "Instead of standing by as vital public outlets disappear, we should seize on this moment to reinvest in innovative community media projects and serious accountability journalism. If we act now, this could be the biggest boost for public-minded media since the creation of the public broadcasting system."
The Free Press Action Fund set out to determine which public TV stations are taking part in the auction. In July, the group found that 54 public TV stations confirmed that they are participants in the auction; 87 stations confirmed that they were not part of the auction; 40 stations refused to say whether they had applied to participate; and 104 public TV stations did not respond.
Three Los Angeles-area public TV stations—KVCR-TV, KOCE-TV, and KLCS-TV—together could be worth more than $1.5 billion, based on the FCC's maximum opening-bid prices. WYCC-TV on the South Side of Chicago, owned by local community colleges, could be worth as much as $473 million. WHUT-TV, licensed to Howard University in Washington, DC, the country's only Black-owned public broadcasting station, could be worth as much as $460 million.
"What we want to see happen is the owners of the licenses, which are sometimes local governments, state governments, universities, and a few different public institutions … make sure they're taking significant parts of the proceeds of [their sales] and reinvesting it back into both local journalism and community information projects," said Rispoli. "There are a lot of budget problems with local governments and universities, which may be reasons they're selling their stations, but we just want to make sure the money that comes from it goes back into serving the public interest and delivering information, so it fulfils that original intent of why they owned the TV stations in the first place."
But what happens if it doesn't work? Rispoli admitted that what each license holder does with their money is up to them, and at the moment, very few stations have indicated what they would do with the proceeds "mainly because the final amount is still yet to be determined and many have been quiet about their participation in the auction."
"New Jersey, historically, has always very heavily relied on print media because it's between two very large television markets,"
The initial phase of the campaign, which is being launched at NewsVoices.org, will focus on New Jersey and urge lawmakers there to devote some of the proceeds from auctioning state-owned public TV licenses to support innovative journalism and community-driven projects across the state.
"New Jersey, historically, has always very heavily relied on print media because it's between two very large television markets in Philadelphia and New York, so a lot of local issues get overlooked and so it's always relied on strong, local journalism and print media," said Rispoli.
Local and print media in the US have suffered particularly in recent times, but Rispoli said that there's a real need in New Jersey for hyperlocal reporting so that citizens can get information about the very places they live, go to work, or go to school. He said the money could be used in a variety of ways, from funding digital startups to grants for legacy media outlets to fund investigative reporting.
Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund said that they will be pushing to create a $250 million permanent public fund to support local information needs for decades to come. Other ideas for use of proceeds include support for community-focused digital news sites, blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, public data access apps, and other civic engagement tools.
All of which, however, relies on the assistance of lawmakers to push the stations to allocate funds. Rispoli said that he is working with decision makers right now, specifically in New Jersey, to get the plans on the agenda and get them passed—but financial challenges in the various states may pose problems.
"I think it's safe to say that a lot of lawmakers will be clamoring for this money. But we also think that there is an understanding, in Trenton and elsewhere, of the public interest obligations that come with owning these airwaves in the first place and any money from their sale must go back to public interest media," Rispoli said. "We're confident that this campaign, in collaboration with people across New Jersey and elsewhere, can rebuild what public interest media looks like using money from the sale of our airwaves."
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