Tag Archives: FCC

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

New Haven Independent seeks to build community radio station

6011084575_3a9019d5ea_nThis article was previously published by the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The New Haven Independent, which launched eight years ago amid the first wave of online-only community news sites, may soon expand into radio.

The nonprofit Independent is one of three groups asking the FCC for a low-power FM (LPFM) license in New Haven, Conn. If successful, editor and founder Paul Bass says that “New Haven Independent Radio” could make its debut at 103.5 FM in about a year.

“It would be a fun thing if we get it. I’m told it’s very hard,” Bass says. “We’re by no means talking as if we’re going to get this license. We thought it would be worth a shot.” He envisions a mix of news from the Independent and La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the Independent’s content partner (and landlord), as well as music, public affairs, and shows produced by local nonprofit organizations. The station would be on the air at least 16 hours a day.

The three New Haven applications are part of the FCC’s great LPFM land rush. Legislation signed by President Obama in 2011 eased restrictions on low-power stations, and the FCC is expected to approve about 1,000 applications sometime in 2014. More than 2,800 applications were received by the deadlinelast month, according to the website Radio World. (Thanks to Aaron Read of Rhode Island Public Radio for tipping me off about the Independent’s application.)

According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a longtime advocate of expanded community radio, “the over 800 low-power stations currently on the air are run by nonprofits, colleges, churches and emergency responders.” For years, the radio industry and (believe it or not) NPR fought the expansion of LPFM, arguing that new stations would interfere with established broadcast frequencies — a concern that advocates say is unwarranted.

Like all LPFM stations, New Haven Independent Radio’s broadcast footprint wouldn’t extend much beyond the city limits, although it would stream online as well — which could be significant, Bass says, given predictions that most cars will have streaming Internet radio within a few years.

Inspired by Haverhill

Bass says he got the idea from WHAV Radio in Haverhill, Mass., a nonprofit online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) whose volunteer general manager, Tim Coco, is seeking to expand with an LPFM license of his own. (I wrote about Coco’s radio ambitions last summer.) Coco, who runs an advertising agency and is a local politico of some note, is also among a group of residents working to launch a cooperatively owned community news site to be called Haverhill Matters, under the auspices of the Banyan Project.

“I’m happy I provided some inspiration,” Coco told me by email. “I believe the more local voices, the better for the community.”

Although Bass, if he is successful, may be the first hyperlocal news-site operator to start an independent radio station, the connection between the two media is a natural one. For instance, Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site that covers Genesee County in western New York, has partnered since 2009 with WBTA, an AM station with a strong community presence. An even more ambitious project is under way in the heart of the country, as the St. Louis Beacon news site is merging with St. Louis Public Radio.

Donna Halper, a longtime radio consultant and historian who is an associate professor of communication at Lesley University, says a multiplatform presence of the sort Bass envisions is crucial at a time when the audience has become fragmented.

“These days, it’s a multimedia world, and even a low-power FM station can get people talking” about your work, she says. “In this kind of environment, the more platforms you are on, the more you have top-of-the-mind awareness.”

On the other hand, industry observer Scott Fybush, who writes about radio for his own eponymous website, warns that Bass may not quite realize what he is getting into.

“Twenty-four hours a day of radio is an unforgiving taskmaster,” Fybush said in an email. “There are lots of applicants in this LPFM window who have what appear to be noble ideas, but keeping a station going with engaging programming day in and day out isn’t easy to do.”

Three-way contest

But that’s getting ahead of things, because first Bass has to win the three-way contest for the New Haven license. And that is by no means assured. (Bass’s application was filed by the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit entity that acts as the Independent’s publisher of record.)

According to documents on file with the FCC, the other two applicants are a Spanish-language organization and a Christian broadcaster called Alma Radio. Even though LPFM is intended to encourage localism, Alma proposes to broadcast nationally syndicated religious programs, including “Focus on the Family,” hosted by the controversial evangelical leader James Dobson. Alma Radio’s oversight board, according to a “Purposes and Objectives” document it included with its application, is “composed of members who believe and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Although Bass says his ideas for the station are still evolving, he included a detailed proposal with his FCC application, with such diverse offerings as a morning news program; a daily “La Voz Latino Community Hour”; a collaboration with The Inner-City News, a local African-American publication; community theater; and a two-hour evening program to be called “Joe Ugly Presents Local Hip Hop.” (Joe Ugly is the nom de rap of a New Haven music impresario who runs an Internet radio station called Ugly Radio.)

One of the New Haven Independent’s funders has already put up $3,000, which paid for legal and engineering services. If Bass wins the license, he estimates it would cost $30,000 to build the station and $60,000 to $70,000 to pay a full-time employee to run it — a substantial amount over the approximately $500,000 a year the Independent now receives in donations, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships.

The opportunity is clear enough. Done right, it would enable Bass to bring New Haven Independent journalism, with its hyperlocal emphasis on neighborhoods, schools, and city politics, to a new audience — and to entice that audience, in turn, into sampling the Independent.

The danger, of course, is that the radio project would drain resources and attention away from the Independent itself, diluting its mission with a gamble on a new platform that may or may not succeed. Bass’s answer to that challenge is simple and direct: “We have to make sure it doesn’t.”

Photo (cc) by Michael Coughlan and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

A blow to independent radio

This is very sad news indeed: Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich has announced that WFNX Radio (101.7 FM), one of the few big-market independent rock stations in the country, is being sold to Clear Channel.

The Phoenix has posted Mindich’s email to the staff here.

I remain part of the Phoenix family, and my best wishes go out to everyone affected. Mindich has fought hard to keep his media holdings out of the clutches of corporate chain ownership. But economic conditions remain miserable.

The FCC must approve the sale.

Clear Channel owns 850 radio stations in 150 cities. Its Boston stations are WJMN (94.5 FM), WXKS-FM (107.9 FM), WXKS-AM (AM 1200) and the Spanish-language station WKOX (AM 1430).

Update: Lisa van der Pool of the Boston Business Journal has more details.

Still more: Donna Goodison has a very good, thorough story in the Boston Herald. D.C. Denison has a briefer account at Boston.com.

Net neutrality and the politics of pizza

Imagine living in a world in which Domino’s could pay your phone company to make it impossible for you to call other pizza joints. That can’t happen because, legally, phone services are considered “common carriers,” which must accept all traffic in a non-discriminatory manner. Which is what the battle over net neutrality is all about.

This week the FCC’s three Democrats backed a too-weak proposal to ensure net neutrality that the Republicans vowed to oppose anyway. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical arcana, but, according to news reports like this one, net neutrality will be more or less assured on wired broadband networks such as cable and FIOS, while the market will have its way on wireless networks.

Which network do you suppose will be more important in 10 years — or two, for that matter? Wired or wireless?

Take a look at this post on Engadget, which obtained an actual proposal for wireless broadband providers to charge extra for access to Facebook, Skype and YouTube. It’s a variation on a theme that Sen. Al Franken sounded in a must-read essay. Franken points out that, without net neutrality, Verizon could block Google Maps and charge you extra to use its own inferior mapping service. Franken writes:

Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist. That’s why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time.

Back when the debate was over media concentration, old-school conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Christian Coalition made common cause with liberal groups to stop the FCC from making a bad situation worse. Unfortunately, the newly ascendant Tea Party right is so hostile to government activism that it opposes efforts to ensure net neutrality.

This week’s action by the FCC was not definitive. Net neutrality is an issue that we’ll be revisiting again and again in the years ahead. But given President Obama’s stated support for neutrality, this may be as good as it gets. And it’s not very good.

To learn more, and to take action, visit Free Press.

What Google and Verizon were really up to

Samuel Axton, writing at Mashable, is unstinting in his assessment of last week’s New York Times report that Google and Verizon were secretly negotiating a deal that would undermine net neutrality for their own benefit. The two companies yesterday announced a proposed regulatory framework that would more or less guarantee net neutrality on broadband land lines, but allow wireless providers to operate with fewer regulations. Axton writes:

The proposal we’re seeing is starkly different from what was described in The New York Times article from last week that accused Google and Verizon of conspiring to upend the principles of net neutrality. We didn’t believe it even then, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the conference call that “almost all” of what the NYT reported was “completely wrong.” In particular, he stressed that this is not a business deal at all between Verizon and Google, but simply a joint policy statement.

You wouldn’t know it from reading today’s Times, which cites “reports that Google and Verizon had come to a private agreement.” I am not aware of any “reports” making quite that bold a claim except for the initial story in the Times, which Google and Verizon almost immediately said was wrong.

Still, there’s plenty not to like about the framework that Google and Verizon have proposed. As Jeff Jarvis points out at Buzz Machine, a wireless, ubiquitous connection is quickly becoming what we mean when think of the Internet. Guaranteeing net neutrality for a land-line network that may soon be obsolete not exactly in keeping with Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy. Jarvis writes:

Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time. Then who cares where you are? Mobile? doesn’t matter. You’re just connected. In your car, in your office, in your bedroom, on the street. You’re connected. To what? To the internet, damnit.

The Save the Internet Coalition puts it this way: “Google-Verizon Pact Worse Than Feared.” The FCC needs to be able to put a stop to this.

Earlier coverage here and here.

Now it’s the Times versus Google and Verizon

For now, at least, it looks like the New York Times is doubling down on its report that Google and Verizon are negotiating a deal that would allow Verizon to offer tiered levels of service for content-providers — a deal that would severely undermine the principle of net neutrality.

In a follow-up today, the Times’ Edward Wyatt reports that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski would oppose such a deal. The story continues:

His remarks came in response to press reports that Google and Verizon were nearing an agreement about broadband management that could clear the way for Verizon to consider offering such a service. The two companies declined to comment on any potential deal.

You will note that the link to “press reports” (plural) brings you to Wyatt’s Thursday story (singular), now disputed by Google. Indeed, writing that Google and Verizon have declined to comment may be true in a technical sense, but it strikes me as disingenuous given Google’s full-throated denial. Verizon has since denied it as well.

Scott Morrison of Dow Jones has more on the sniping between the Times and the two companies, quoting Google spokeswoman Mistique Cano as saying, “The New York Times is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic.”

But Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty says her paper is sticking by its story, commenting, “Google’s comment about the New York Times story refutes something the Times story didn’t say.”

A Times commenter, Dan K of Brooklyn (not me, I swear!), has some links to other coverage that raise the possibility that Google is pursuing separate strategies regarding Verizon’s broadband and cellular networks, and that the Times may have confused the two.

But the Times story, if accurate, is a huge embarrassment for Google, which has long been a corporate leader in the fight to preserve the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Net neutrality is what allowed an upstart like Google to become a major media player in the first place, and it’s fostered independent news outlets ranging from Talking Points Memo to the guy in his mother’s basement who blogs about local zoning issues.

Save the Internet has responded to all this with a new campaign called “Dear Google: Don’t Be Evil.”

The closing of the Internet*

Imagine you are trying to start a news site in your community. Your competitor, part of a national chain, offers instant-on, full-screen HD video and a host of other data-intensive features that load the moment you hit “click.” But though you have a broadband connection, even simple videos that you’ve posted load slowly and play in fits and starts.

So you call your Internet provider — most likely Verizon and Comcast — and ask what’s going on. A sales person explains to you that if you want your readers to enjoy the same rich multimedia content as you competitor, then all you have to do is pay another $1,000 a month.

You can’t. You struggle on. And, within six months, you shut down.

That is a likely scenario if we move away from net neutrality — a vitally important principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same. The FCC has been trying to mandate net neutrality, only to be shot down in the federal courts. And today the New York Times reports that Google and Verizon have been involved in negotiations to come up with a multi-tiered Internet with different levels of service and different levels of pricing. [Update: Or perhaps not. See below.]

“It’s like the end of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table,” tweeted new-media strategist Steve Yelvington. In fact, Google at one time had been a leader in pushing for net neturality.

Please understand what net neutrality is not. There is nothing wrong with charging consumers more for better Internet service. Broadband costs more than dial-up, and fast broadband costs more than slow broadband. That’s life.

Rather, this involves the other end of the pipe, to fees that content-providers would pay in order to receive preferential service. It would make it far more difficult for start-ups, low-budget projects and non-profits to compete with big media sites. You might say that’s the whole idea.

Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.

Josh Silver, president of the advocacy organization Free Press, calls the pending Google-Verizon deal “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, offers some further thoughts.

For more information, including what you can do, check out Save the Internet.

*Update: Sharp-eyed reader Nick Mendez found a tweet from Google Public Policy claiming that the Times got the story wrong. According to @googlepubpolicy: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”

Wow. This bears watching. Will the Times retract the story?

Progressive talk and WRKO

AlanF has posted an entertaining account at the Daily Kos about the recent FCC hearing on localism that was held in Portland, Maine. Alan is with Save Boston’s Progressive Talk, formed last year after Clear Channel dumped syndicated liberal talk shows from two weak-signaled stations and replaced them with Latino programming. He writes:

Although progressive talk attracted a loyal following among those who managed to discover it, Clear Channel switched it off abruptly in 2006, replacing it with a Latino music format (“Rumba”). Despite the fact that Clear Channel suddenly managed to find local staff for Rumba, Rumba has done worse in the ratings than progressive talk. This pattern that has been repeated across the country.

You’d think someone would take a chance on liberal talk in Boston, wouldn’t you? I continue to think that ratings-challenged WRKO (AM 680) ought to give it a try, now that afternoon host Howie Carr is jumping to WTKK (96.9 FM) this fall. Let me play WRKO consultant for a moment and try this out on you:

  • Steal Jim Braude and Margery Eagan from WTKK and put them on in the morning against Carr, who’s slotted to be the ‘TKK morning guy. Braude is the only liberal radio host in Boston; Eagan is a moderate. They’ve also got a breezy style that’s better suited to the morning drive than Howie’s sneering putdowns.
  • Move Tom Finneran from morning to afternoon drive and pair him with a liberal co-host. Instead of competing with the lazy but talented Carr, he’d be competing with the foul-mouthed libertarian Jay Severin. I don’t know who’d win that one, but my guess is that Finneran and company, by focusing on local issues, would at least hold their own.
  • Develop a new local show for the 10 a.m.-to-noon slot to go up against whatever ‘TKK is running. I’m guessing that’s where Michael Graham will land once Howie arrives, and if you can’t compete with Graham’s yipping, upper-octave rants about illegal immigrants, you can’t compete.
  • Now, here’s a tricky one. I’d definitely put syndicated liberal host Ed Schultz in the noon-to-3 p.m. segment. But Schultz works best as a counterweight to Rush Limbaugh, whom ‘RKO would be replacing. I say go with Schultz and hope ‘TKK management is stupid enough to pick up Limbaugh, a ratings monster nationwide but not here.
  • From 7 p.m. on, it doesn’t matter all that much, especially since WRKO carries the Red Sox. I guess I’d run Stephanie Miller‘s syndicated show from 7 to 10 p.m. on nights when the Sox aren’t playing. She’d be up against Bill O’Reilly — not a problem in this market.

Now look at that. I’ve solved all of WRKO’s problems, and it only took me 20 minutes. What do you think, Brian? Next?

Jacoby’s botched analogy

Someone needs to tell Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby about zoning. In arguing against the Fairness Doctrine for over-the-air broadcasters, Jacoby writes:

Better than a debate over the Fairness Doctrine, though, would be a debate over whether radio and television should be regulated by government in the first place. The standard justification for such regulation is that the airwaves are public property. There are only a finite number of broadcast frequencies, the statists say. If the government didn’t own and license them, the result would be chaos.

Well, the supply of land is finite, too. Yet no one argues that real estate should be nationalized and licensed by the feds. It is obvious that land can be bought and sold in a free market without resulting in anarchy. Why should the broadcast spectrum be any different?

In fact, land is bought and sold in a semi-free market. You’re free to buy a piece of property in a residential zone, but you’re not free to develop it as a Wal-Mart or a toxic-waste pit. The rules governing how you use your land are actually pretty strict. So Jacoby’s analogy isn’t just off a little bit — it’s off 180 degrees.

That said, I agree with Jacoby. We don’t need the Fairness Doctrine. What we do need are real, enforceable limits on ownership of the sort that existed before the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Ensuring diverse, local licensing of those — yes — finite broadcast frequencies would do more to improve what we see and hear than any amount of content-based government regulation.

That’s what Mark Lloyd of the Center for American Progress recently tried to tell Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio’s “On Point.” It took Lloyd several tries to convince Ashbrook that he doesn’t want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but I think Ashcroft finally got it.