The FCC is poised to rescind the Open Internet Order—the set of strong, enforceable net neutrality rules that prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with web traffic that travels across their networks. One unintentional victim of that action is likely to be small television stations, newspaper publishers, and websites devoted to local news. Local news outlets play a vital civic role, but they face a crisis of declining revenue and audience, largely driven by internet competition. Legacy providers and startups alike are responding to that crisis in innovative ways, but their search for a sustainable twenty-first century business model is still in its infancy. If local news outlets have any hope of finding stable footing, they need access to a free and open internet with manageable costs.
Economic forces and the choices made by ISPs in the past strongly suggest that eliminating net neutrality rules would exacerbate negative trends in local news, and would likely lead to reduced quality, diversity, and choice. Importantly, the state of local media suggests that while some of the negative impact might come from intentional discrimination by and direct competition from ISPs, the most serious threat to local news would be collateral damage from a regime that favors large, established online players and makes it harder for new entrants to break through.
In a world without net neutrality, the cost of online news reporting will go up and local providers’ ability to offer quality content will go down. There will be fewer legacy outlets, and many of the ones that survive will do so by consolidating, diminishing their independence and the diversity of the local news ecosystem as a whole. And it will be harder than ever for local news startups to fill the space because the costs of starting an online business will be higher and the ability to innovate technologically will be constrained. The result will be less quality and less diversity in reporting on the issues that matter most to local communities, leaving all of us less informed.