Tough times may call for lax restrictions

If it takes a big man to admit he was wrong, said man needn’t be quite so magnanimous to concede that changing circumstances have altered his outlook.

The perils of media consolidation have been a longstanding concern. Even during a stint working for Tribune Co. as they futilely attempted to squeeze synergies out of TV-print combinations, I banged the drum against allowing TV, radio stations and newspapers coagulate in too few hands, fearing ethical abuses or the nagging appearance of them, as well as the loss of independent voices to watchdog government and the media itself.

Today, though, amid daily waves of depressing economic news, conflicted voices sound preferable to neutered or, worse, deceased ones.

It’s not a given that further relaxing restrictions on media consolidation would significantly benefit ailing broadcasters and newspapers at this late stage. Economies of scale certainly haven’t kept Time Warner from shedding staff at its magazines or Tribune out of bankruptcy.

Even so, the incoming Obama administration faces difficult choices involving big media nearly as nettlesome, in their own way, as the mess it’s grappling with regarding the Big Three automakers.

Without some kind of action, more broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are going to die off. Local news coverage — the essence of public service, however quaint and dated that might sound — has already been seriously compromised, as TV and print cut back on newsgathering resources. Other creative methods to pare costs have assumed almost Orwellian dimensions, from outsourcing editing functions to Mumbai (there’s nothing quite like having copy editors 8,000 miles away from the city council meeting) to “citizen journalism,” often little more than code for stations that lack the manpower to cover their communities tapping amateur video to fill the void.

Competition has historically been a good thing for the news biz, and we’re already seeing less and less of it. Detroit papers have begun shifting their product online. The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun have announced a news-sharing plan. TV stations air reports from central hubs, assembled in far-off ports. D.C. and overseas bureaus are shrinking or simply disappearing.

“Good journalism does not come cheap,” as New York Times editor Bill Keller told NPR. “There’s a real shortage of the kind of information that I would call quality journalism.”

Media folk tend to be self-obsessed, yielding an inordinate amount of alarmist prose about their declining fields. Yet the bottom line is that unless newspapers and smaller-market stations become not-for-profit ventures (and based on recent cuts at National Public Radio, even that offers no assurance of success), something’s got to give — beginning, perhaps, with restrictions that prevent enterprises from pooling resources in a way that might help them survive.

Granted, some of these companies have been poorly managed, and much of what passes for “journalism” is at best bastardized infotainment. Nevertheless, the twin blows of technological change and a severe economic downturn have left even elite media enterprises vulnerable. And despite the “Let ‘em die” mantra frequently voiced within mainstream media-hating precincts of the blogosphere (just curious, but where do you think Drudge and company get most of their links?), the appetite for the product remains strong; what’s lacking is a viable business model, with each lost dollar from print or broadcasting returning mere pennies online.

As James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker, “The real problem for newspapers … isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free.” The same dilemma applies to Web video.

So as the U.S. wrestles with ways to salvage the auto industry, it’s worth considering options to fortify traditional media — which fortunately won’t require raiding public coffers but may call for new regulatory schemes. Joel Brinkley, a Stanford journalism professor, has proposed an antitrust exemption that would assist newspapers in charging for online content, addressing the conundrum of Web consumption failing to translate into revenue.

Like greater consolidation, that’s an imperfect solution, and letting one or two owners monopolize markets is equally thorny. Still, it’s increasingly clear these wounds (self-inflicted or otherwise) won’t heal themselves — and that easing ownership constraints is a more attractive alternative than watching central providers of information slowly drown, while standing on principle instead of tossing them a lifeline.

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