Public access cable and local news: an alliance whose time may have come

Photo (cc) 2015 by Ed Yourdon

Could public access cable TV help solve the local news crisis? It’s a question that we put to Chris Lovett on this week’s “What Works” podcast. Lovett recently retired as the longtime anchor of Boston’s “Neighborhood Network News,” a first-rate daily newscast he produced along with journalism students from Boston University.

Lovett was skeptical. Funding for public access has been drying up in recent years as increasing numbers of viewers cut the cable cord and watch video exclusively on the internet. Donald Trump’s FCC took steps to reduce the amount of money public access received as well. And as Lovett observed, public access lacks the political support that it once had when, for example, the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino saw it as a way to reach his constituents. By contrast, incoming Mayor Michelle Wu is a master of social media, where she can control her own message.

Now Antoine Haywood and Victor Pickard have weighed in with some ideas, published at Nieman Lab, built around the possibility of mobilizing the country’s 1,600 public access operations. They write:

Instead of letting PEG [public, educational and governmental] channels wither due to commercial market fluctuations, we should publicly fund and expand the precious communication infrastructure that access media offers. A national fund that distributes local journalism grants, based on demonstrated community need, could benefit public access media centers interested in building collaborative, solutions-oriented types of journalism programs. Modest grants in the range of $100,000 to $300,000 would enable small operations to hire editorial staff, train and compensate community reporters, and forge collaborative partnerships with other news organizations.

It’s an interesting idea. Traditionally, with a few notable exceptions like “NNN,” public access has seen its mission mainly as a platform for training members of the community, carrying such events as governmental meetings and school plays, and providing a forum for someone who might want to host their own talk show. What public access has not done is provide reported, vetted journalism.

But maybe that can change. With community newspapers under siege, public access might prove to be a worthwhile alternative.

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4 thoughts on “Public access cable and local news: an alliance whose time may have come

  1. pauljbass

    Love this proposal. I would just beware of well intentioned jargon like “solutions oriented” that end up casting support in the new precriptive news philanthropic from-a-distance top-down one-size-fits-all groupthink that excludes grassroots innovative truly community-connected jpurnalism and civic discourse

  2. Marcus Breen

    Paul is correct – I agree with the criticism – if local communities can control the arrangements to have profits from cable compaines returned to the communities (the original logic of Cable TV) from which they are extracting them, so much the better. Philanthropic solutions to journalism should be avoided.
    Dan: What do you mean by “reported, vetted journalism?” Cable offers many kinds of information to communities – you may be at risk of insisting on a limited model of journalistic, information practice.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Marcus, I would not get rid of the “many kinds of information” that are on cable. But I would add real news. Very few people are going to sit through a three-hour city council meeting or a ranting talk show by the local Trumper.

  3. I’m glad that public access is getting some attention. I’ve been involved directly and tangentally in PEG access since 1998, longer if my community radio days are to be counted. I’m currently Exec. Director of Lynn Community Television.

    At LCTV, we have a full time employee with a Masters in Journalism covering community events, interviewing movers, shakers, school sports teams and elected officials as well as moderating our election season forums. We’re fortunate to have this in a city that also has a daily paper. But, that paper is thin, and we’re beginning to scoop it on stories, and we’ve been the only game in town for live election night coverage for a few election seasons already. (Attempts to work together for more than a special event here and there, haven’t lead anywhere yet.)

    Picking up the slack in local news certainly proves our value, when it’s being questioned in light of 21st century developments in social media and online distribution platforms. But what we offer in Lynn extends beyond news.

    First, we are finding that many immigrant populations in this gateway city have deep connections with traditional media. They start radio stations (legal or otherwise,) and come to us to produce programs in Spanish, many of them religious, that reach a cable audience. Recently, a representative of a Haitian non-profit starting up an online radio station visited our facilities to see how we can work together, perhaps with a camera in their radio studio.

    We also recognize our strong, and possibly stronger, online audience. We spent large sum of money to have our website rebuilt from the ground up to better feature and organize content. It works well for our majority mobile viewers (thanks, Google Analytics.) We pay a large annual fee to a cloud service to host our videos outside of youtube and its rules. (Why? Youtube has taken down Veterans Day Ceremonies because the All-School Band was a little too good at covering known songs – yes, they flag community events for copyright violations.)

    We stream all our live City Council meetings on FB and Youtube, as well as in the 24hr livestream on our website.

    During the Covid pandemic, given the limitations of the City’s very outdated website design, we were the main source of information to residents, in multiple languages. During the height of the lockdown, we were airing daily zooms with City Councilors and Spanish and Khmer interpreters.

    Our studio is recently upgraded, our sign out equipment is always a few steps ahead – if not much further ahead – than consumer equipment.

    All of that costs money, of course. As does having enough staff to provide services to our members and cover community events and meetings.

    Yet, we’re largely taken for granted. People don’t just ask, but sometimes demand we cover things without understanding how it all works. PEG does a horrible job informing the public about the history, how’s and why’s of our existence and how we’re funded. I don’t know how to explain it myself without someone at best feigning interest. We need help in that area – badly.

    We need a new, revised cable/tv/phone/internet/etc. act, not just a Cable Act. Physical infrastructure is physical infrastructure, whether it’s carrying 1’s and 0’s to cord cutters streaming on Hulu or 1’s and 0’s to watch HGTV on a cable package. It should all be based on being granted use of public rights of way to run fiber, copper, or whatever it may be. Future proof it! (I’m not yet feeling the threat of mmWave 5g, if you haven’t noticed. It’s not able to deliver, yet.)

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