Media-ownership rules need new look

Combinations aren't ideal, but they're better than insolvency

The prospect of the Federal Communications Commission relaxing media-ownership rules has produced predictable hand-wringing from the usual suspects. Yet while it’s not comforting to envision Rupert Murdoch expanding News Corp.’s journalism empire, many objections appear mired in an oh-so-1990s mindset.

It was in 1996, notably, when a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, eased media guidelines under the Telecommunications Act, and the fallout was disturbing, including massive consolidation in the radio industry. The poster child became Clear Channel Communications, which amassed more than 1,200 stations, swallowing up one small owner after another.

Moreover, given the predatory habits of media barons, decline in localism and increase in questionable TV news practices — witness Sinclair Broadcasting’s pre-election “news special” inveighing against President Obama — watchdogs have every reason to be wary.

As Common Cause noted in a comprehensive report a decade after the legislation became law, its enactment triggered plenty of unforeseen consequences, and clearly benefited the industry much more than the public.

Still, a lot has changed in the past 16 years. And while there are legitimate reasons to worry about the adverse effects of media consolidation — including reductions in local coverage, diversity of voices and minority ownership — in some instances, the alternative might be seeing news outlets disappear entirely.

For once, Chicken Little’s warnings have the ring of truth. Newspapers already have experienced a dramatic reduction in resources in key cities, leaving several major markets without a daily print presence, and vastly depleted ambitions in any space. Local TV is wrestling with similar challenges, despite all the advantages earlier rules-changes afforded them.

Simply put, pooling assets under one umbrella might be the best chance of sustaining coverage in many cities by finding ways to create content for use across multiple platforms, including TV and publishing. While such combinations will by definition reduce ownership diversity, if the alternative is folding newspapers entirely or gutting staffs, it’s hard to see who gains.

Granted, pairing disparate operations hasn’t always worked terribly well in the past — witness Tribune Co.’s dysfunctional attempts to wed TV and print — and is sure to create awkward alliances and strange bedfellows. Indeed, even the acquisition of Variety by Penske Media — which owns a key competitor, Deadline.com — at first blush falls into the latter category.

Still, watching Tribune seek to dig itself out of bankruptcy has offered a cautionary tale. The company’s newspapers in Los Angeles and Chicago have already been slashed in size and scope, making a good case for finding a deeper-pocketed owner.

In a Nov. 28 conference call organized by the advocacy group Free Press, a coalition of groups expressed misgivings about forging ahead without further study. “Pushing through these rules right now will actually stifle innovation,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, a media union.

Should the FCC proceed with its plans, there will no doubt be some irony in another round of deregulation happening under a Democratic administration. Murdoch — on the hunt for acquisitions to stock his soon-to-be-split-up company — would be an obvious beneficiary of being granted a larger shopping cart, and whether via his holdings or his Twitter account, there have been few more vocal and alarmist critics of the current president.

Nevertheless, helping out people who don’t necessarily need or deserve it — and Murdoch certainly qualifies on that score — isn’t by itself reason to squelch rule changes with genuine potential to assist struggling news-gathering enterprises that serve communities.

Free Press president-CEO Craig Aaron called the prospect of the feds allowing more consolidation “another handout to big media,” while reiterating the warning that centralized ownership undermines alternative voices.

If history is any guide, those are legitimate concerns. They must be balanced, however, against a news media steadily losing key platforms through sheer shrinkage, while waiting for the Internet to catch up with the traditional model.

Opponents of changing the FCC rules mostly have asked for further examination. “We want some time to talk about it,” Lunzer said.

Still, there’s no arguing journalism has seen thousands of jobs evaporate over the past decade. So while more information is always helpful, time might be one of those luxuries many who care about media can no longer afford.

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