FCC bid to ease ownership rule is too little, too late
In 2000, Tribune Co. announced merger plans with Times Mirror. At the time, the company touted the inherent synergies — pairing big-city newspapers in the New York area, Los Angeles and Chicago with powerful TV stations — while public-interest groups fretted about losing independent voices and sources of news.“Tribune has led the way in media convergence,” then-chairman John Madigan crowed when the deal was finalized. “Today, our cross-media assets create a tremendous competitive advantage.” Less than a dozen years later, Tribune is still digging itself out of bankruptcy and employees are wondering what they’ll see of their pensions, saying something about the best-laid plans of mice and media execs in these fast-changing times. So while one can appreciate lingering concerns about media consolidation, it’s hard to get quite as fired up about the Federal Communications Commission’s recent proposal to relax newspaper-TV ownership rules when considering Tribune’s sorry example. Granted, Tribune’s woes stemmed in part from other factors — mismanagement, the carpet-bagging ways of “grave dancer” Sam Zell, with his appetite for distressed properties and contempt for journalism — but many of its problems are endemic of forces sweeping the industry. Perhaps that’s why even some of us who railed against concentrated media ownership in the past derive little terror or righteous indignation from the prospect of easing the aforementioned guidelines. In fact, given the financial strains local print and broadcasting face, it seems like a reasonable attempt to ensure their viability — and frankly might come as too little, too late. Tribune’s plan certainly looked good on paper, but fundamentally misread key aspects of TV and newspapers. Although opportunities for cooperation appear obvious — they both produce news, right? — Tribune and others overlooked several key impediments. These range from disparate cultures and mutual distrust to the fact many skills don’t translate as readily as one might assume. Yes, cable networks rely on journalists as talking heads, but the sort of stories a major newspaper and TV stations cover differ in selection, tone and style. That’s one reason print drones often look uncomfortable on camera or chafe at the giddiness of broadcast news. If anything, local TV has grown more airhead and less able to shift gears to serious news, in much the same way print journalists don’t mesh with a TV “morning zoo” mentality. Aside from cultural and turf battles, anticipated synergistic benefits turned out to be minimal at best. Having Los Angeles Times signage on KTLA doesn’t do much to sell newspapers, any more than Times house ads for CW shows like “The Vampire Diaries” reach the netlet’s target audience. It’s sort of like trying to interest the cat in Christmas ornaments. They might bat them around but really don’t have much use for them. Not surprisingly, this didn’t prevent expressions of alarm regarding the FCC’s deregulation plans. “The already dwindling number of smaller and independent media owners will be swallowed up by the same media giants that have crushed local journalism, killed local radio and left us with the same cookie-cutter content from coast to coast,” said Free Press, a nonprofit group advocating for media reform. Still, it’s hard to imagine a greater dilution of voices than what Tribune has achieved through sheer attribution with its slashing, downsizing ways. In the interest of full disclosure, this comes from a former Los Angeles Times employee who has seen the paper wither to less than half its peak size, with shuttered bureaus and consolidated resources. If there’s hope for combining TV and print now that didn’t exist in 2000, both have been weakened to the point where a meeting of the minds seems more possible. Of course, with newspapers eager to drive Web traffic and post video (Hey, cute polar bear cubs!), and TV stations trying to generate additional revenue from cheap niche material on ancillary channels, that probably means convening closer to the bottom than the middle. Granted, media execs are adept at pleading poverty and begging for fewer governmental constraints. Yet after years of warning the sky is falling they might finally have a legitimate argument, with no assurance even the shotgun wedding of newspapers and TV will prevent a hard landing — much less provide a happy ending.