Local News Makes Communities Smarter. But Without Net Neutrality, It Doesn't Have a Chance.

It’s no secret that local news outlets are struggling in the internet age. But it’s also beyond doubt that local news makes communities more connected, informed, and civically engaged.

Local news outlets uncover stories that no one else would think to look for; they lift up minority voices and speak to the interests of communities that might otherwise be ignored; they hold people with power in the local community to account; and they provide people with useful information that they rely on in their daily lives. Local news organizations’ ability to do all of that relies on their ability to reach consumers and generate revenue. And although times are hard, outlets are experimenting with technology and business models that show a lot of promise.

The Stanford Center for Internet and Society released a report today showing that the FCC’s plan to dismantle strong and enforceable net neutrality protections puts those innovative efforts at risk. This would be a radical change, not a small regulatory rollback. For the past 15 years, the FCC has used multiple tools to make sure that ISPs, the companies that consumers pay to get online, don’t interfere with what Americans read and do online. If the FCC proposal, which includes reclassification of ISPs as “information services” passes, the FCC will no longer have rules that constrain broadband provider’s behavior, nor the authority to issue any any.

News sites won’t  necessarily be harmed because ISPs would seek to suppress local news or drive content providers out of business—though, in a world without net neutrality, ISPs would have the tools to do that.

The real danger to local news comes from the side effects of non-neutral practices by ISPs  that may never give local news a second thought.

Here’s a few different ways that local news could be caught in the crossfire:

  • ISPs can use the threat of blocking or slowing down traffic to charges fees to all websites, including news organizations, either directly or through the “middle mile” traffic carriers and content delivery networks that publishers rely on to get their content to readers quickly and reliably. Major ISPs already tried a version of this in 2013 in an effort to extract money from Netflix, and thousands of websites were made unusable. Besides the short-term risk of simply being blocked or slowed down, the normalization of tactics like this could make the internet more expensive for all content providers in the long term. Local news providers can’t afford that expense.

  • If content providers to pay for faster service, local news providers will have to either raid their editorial budget to have stories load fast for readers, or be stuck with slow sites that readers abandon. That will lead to more incentives to distribute their reporting through big players like Facebook, who have the ability to pay for fast lanes. But user behavior on social media sites strongly favors national political stories, and local news tends to fall by the wayside. A world where publishing on Facebook is the best guarantee of quality is a world where local news is even more likely to be ignored.

  • When big news organizations or conglomerates can pay for fast lanes, they have the ability to create innovative content, like virtual reality reporting, that requires high speed and high quality to be successful. That means that big national outlets with a lot of money can experiment and innovate with storytelling, while local news outlets can’t afford to keep up.

  • In jurisdictions without net neutrality, ISPs have experimented with ad blocking. No one loves display ads, but they are by far the most important revenue source for online local news. If that revenue dries up, many startups and legacy sites would no longer be viable.

  • ISPs have also sought to block consumers from using messaging apps like WhatsApp and We Chat, because they take away market share from the ISPs’ texting services. Those messaging apps are an increasingly important reporting tool and news delivery tool around the world, and cutting off that avenue of development—along with countless others—could stifle local news organizations’ ability to innovate.

It’s hard to predict the exact effects the end of net neutrality will have on the local news business.

But it is unavoidably clear that an internet without net neutrality is one that favors the big, the national, and the established.

That doesn’t leave much room for small, local, and up-and-coming news outlets devoted to serving their communities. Local news providers may never be the “next big thing,” but they enrich their communities in countless ways. An internet with less room for them is one with less room for serendipity, community, and quirkiness, and one that leaves us all less informed.

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