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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