Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Looser media ownership rules would impact public

Should there be looser media ownership rules in the country?
On Dec. 18, after a 32-year ban, the Federal Communications Commission voted to loosen the rules, and will allow media companies to own a newspaper and a radio or television station within the same market.
This will apply to the top 20 markets in the country.
According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, “in order to do so, there must be at least eight media outlets in the market, and if the transaction involves a television station, it can’t be one of the four largest stations in that market.
“In smaller markets, firms can apply for a waiver from the rule, although they will have to prove under a new test that it would be in the public interest,” said the WSJ article.
Large media companies such as Gannett Inc. and Media General Inc. are expected to benefit from the changes.
While 25 members of the U.S. Senate, including Sen. Barack Obama have threatened to block changes, it’s up to the public to make their voices heard.
So where does your small local newspaper or niche publication fit in to this changing media world, and why should you care what the FCC decides?
Be prepared — it doesn’t matter what community you live in, you’ll see the impact of these FCC changes if they go through.
Whether it’s big markets or rural areas, the move by FCC opens the doors to how media will serve communities as a whole.
Newspaper companies emphasize their profits have fallen as advertising has dropped, and may point to the Internet and broadcast stations as having more profit potential.
It will probably be bigger companies with deep financial pockets that can afford to have the cross-ownership in these desirable markets.
If the same company owns newspaper and broadcast facilities within a community, expect changes.
If anyone wanted to see an example of what can happen, just look north to Canada. After so much consolidation and cross-ownership was allowed there, Canadians now have one company — CanWest Global Communications Corp. — that controls the largest newspaper chain in the country, as well as the No. 2 private television network, and it is still hungry for more ownership.
An example of how such power could be bad is that the company has at times directed what editorials could run in its major newspapers across the country — and what stories can’t.
So what can be expected here?
It is the right of the owner to cut expenses, and what better way to do it than to start to consolidate the news departments.
Expect to see more cross-use of what’s in the newspaper and what’s being broadcast, so fewer stories or reporters may be needed; expect fewer hard news stories on the front page of the papers and probably more entertainment news as newspapers will be the vehicle to promote what is happening on the television station’s primetime television programs; and for those in the rural areas who depend on the nearest big city to supply their television news or newspaper, there will probably be less interest in covering news outside of the city’s boundaries.
After all, the news budgets can only go so far — and the media owner will be most interested in suburban audience and getting the maximum exposure for each inch of newsprint and minute on air.
Also, when the same company has television and newspaper ownership in the same market, there can be censorship on certain news: If a company doesn’t want certain political, financial or other stories to run, it now can cover a wider swath of shutting down that story so it doesn’t reach the public.
Then there is the advertising aspect. When an owner has a newspaper as well as broadcast stations, this can be a mixed impact on advertisers depending on how the rate structure is set up. There may be packages that allow advertisers to cross-advertise their products in newspapers as well as on the air; however, there might be fewer opportunities to get a break if there isn’t the competition anymore and the company can set whatever rate it wants and can expect to get it.
In places where cross-ownership could be allowed, the big companies can come into the market and apply pressure against any of their competitors, whether a small company or family-owned operation, and played hardball. The big companies can reduce rates far below what the smaller companies can afford to give up from their profit margin, and eventually the smaller companies give up. This leads back to the bigger companies doing then whatever they want with rates — and the community suffers.
Having the cross-ownership in the media can also affect who reports the news. No longer will the best print journalists be desirable to hire unless they also have a good voice, nice face and good broadcast presence. After all, today’s writers might be tomorrow’s television commentators as they discuss the stories they did for the newspapers, or they might be summarizing their stories for radio, television or even Internet podcasts.
When a reporter is expected to do so much more with a story, it could impact how well the story is done if the reporter has less time to research or write it, and needs to rush to get the story broadcast in this increasingly interactive, info-hungry, multi-channel, Web-connected universe.
Is this fear-mongering? No. These are just some of the actual examples of what happened in Canada — and could happen here.
True, even smaller newspapers have already been making changes. The newspapers have their print product, their online version, their ventures into audio, video and other multimedia options. They might even work with other newspapers, radio or TV stations, offering news feeds or have their staff serve as commentators on stories.
But the difference is the staff at these smaller newspapers or local broadcast companies have roots in their communities.
They’re not run by some giant corporation with offices across the nation.
They’re not being influenced to run entertainment news to support the programs created by a television network.
They care about what happens and is important to their audiences.
They know how important a local rodeo is, report extensively on a local weather catastrophe, and will cover subjects like agriculture, town meetings, or local school politics when no big media company would think twice on that news.
They try to avoid sensationalism, and pride themselves on serving their customers.
In these smaller communities, it’s not just another reader, or viewer, or potential Nielsen Ratings triumph.
For these reasons, people should be aware what these media ownership changes could mean — and fight to protect the independent and smaller media companies that still exist in this country.

(Elaine Shein, executive editor of Capital Press, spent several years on the Canadian Association of Journalists board of directors during the time it was reacting to Canadian media going through considerable media concentration and cross-ownership.)

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