By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Cross-ownership and new media

Ten years from now — maybe a little sooner, maybe a little later — we’ll receive what we currently refer to as “television” through a thick Internet cable. As with today’s Internet, we will theoretically have an infinite number of choices. Rupert Murdoch (and, yes, I am convinced the man is going to live forever) may own nine of the 10 most-viewed video sites. But anyone will be free to start his or her own video operation, whether it’s the major metropolitan news site in your region (we may still be calling them “newspapers,” but strictly for nostalgia purposes) or the sort of community-minded folks who today volunteer at local-access cable television outlets.

As long as we can preserve net neutrality, such a mediascape is almost certain to come into being. And, at that point, there will no longer be a rationale for regulating the media. For some 80 years now, the FCC has regulated the content and ownership of over-the-air television and radio stations because of a very simple principle of physics: there is only so much broadcast spectrum available, and therefore it makes some sense to make sure that spectrum is used in the public interest.

Since the Reagan years, though, the FCC, with an occasional assist from Congress, has been moving away from its regulatory mission. The Fairness Doctrine and the equal-time provisions no longer exist, and corporations are allowed to own many more properties, both locally and nationally. Most famously, this led to the situation in Minot, N.D., a few years ago, when a train accident led to a deadly outbreak of poisonous gas — and there was no one at the local Clear Channel station to get the word out. (I should note that the story is at least partly apocryphal.)

Last week FCC chairman Kevin Martin led an effort to loosen ownership rules still further, allowing one company to own both a newspaper and a television station in the same city, an arrangement known in the trade as “cross-ownership.” The reaction to this has been remarkably low-key. Maybe it’s because Martin’s proposal is cautious and complicated: it would only apply to the 20 largest cities in the country, and it would pertain only to one of the smaller TV stations in a given market. Maybe it’s because he simultaneously proposed new limits on cable companies. Or maybe it’s because the news business is in such a diminished state that critics are accepting of, or at least apathetic toward, what they once would have railed against. I might fall into this category; and I find myself half-agreeing with Martin that allowing television and newspaper operations to combine might result in more and better journalism.

To be sure, some are vehemently opposed to this. Media-reform advocate Robert McChesney’s group, Free Press, is unleashing a campaign to overturn the loosening of the cross-ownership ban. A group of journalism-school deans, represented locally by Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times arguing that “we do not believe that the market can be absolutely trusted to provide the local news gathering that the American system needs to function at its best.”

New-media cheerleader Jeff Jarvis wrote a post for his Buzz Machine blog claiming that the j-school folks just don’t get it. Now, I agree with Jarvis in part. I don’t like either Martin’s or the deans’ suggestion that the news content of broadcast operations should somehow be monitored and regulated. I do not lament the demise of the Fairness Doctrine or of equal time, and would prefer that the FCC limit itself to breaking up monopoly ownership. By ensuring local, diverse ownership, you don’t need to regulate content.

But Jarvis bases his argument on the belief that local television news is essentially worthless, which simply isn’t true. Yes, it could be infinitely better. But, certainly on breaking news, local newscasts keep newspapers on their toes. Let a media company that already owns a newspaper in a given city to add a TV station to its holdings, and you might have better, deeper journalism in both the paper and on television. Or you might just get more cost-cutting.

Overall, Jarvis’ tone suggests that because technology is breaking up the mediascape as we know it anyway, then we should let creative destruction take its course. Well, maybe. But economists like to talk about a “soft landing,” a way of managing a recession so that it causes as little human damage as possible. A soft landing for the news business as we know it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As I pointed out in a response to Jarvis’ post, FCC regulation was directly responsible for the golden age of television news in Boston. In the early 1970s, the FCC stripped the Boston Herald Traveler of its licenses for Channel 5 and a radio station. That allowed a community group to purchase Channel 5 and transform it into WCVB-TV, the most highly regarded local television news operation in the country during the 1970s and ’80s. Unfortunately, the investors eventually cashed in, and today Channel 5 is not much different from other corporate-owned stations. But that’s hardly an argument for deregulation. If anything, it’s an argument for requiring local ownership.

There’s no question that the FCC’s few remaining rules governing ownership seem increasingly archaic. Consider what the New York Times Co. has been able to do around here. In addition to the Boston Globe, it owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette; nearly 14 percent of New England Sports Network; and 49 percent of Metro Boston. It also has a content-sharing arrangement with New England Cable News. (I’m only talking about media holdings. Let’s not forget that the Times Co. owns 17 percent of the Red Sox.) Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who has long lusted after a radio station, must wonder why it’s OK for the Times Co. to amass that much concentrated power in Eastern Massachusetts while FCC rules prevent him from making a move that would be important to his survival but that would be relatively trivial within the overall scheme of things.

Let me bring this up to date. We live in an era when some of the best news video appears on newspaper Web sites — when, for instance, can win an Emmy. At some point very soon, the platform is going to become irrelevant. But that time hasn’t come yet, which is why I’m skeptical of what Martin is trying to do by loosening the cross-ownership ban. Let’s not get too far ahead of the technology.

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  1. Aaron Read

    Dan, I have some thoughts about the Minot story and your use of it over on my own blog as well. Peruse at your leisure…it’s too wordy for posting as a comment here.

  2. Anonymous

    Your perspective on Martin’s efforts is appreciated, but the end product of media consolidation and deregulation seems a pretty worthless product.Most of the local coverage is poor or gone, with few worthy examples, with few differing opinions otherwise.The few examples you listed would be stellar otherwise, but they are sadly too few in a broad nation that seems to be fed a mush media diet already.

  3. Tony

    I have mixed feelings about this. On the on hand, I see why activists are mad because the media consolidation is gotten so out of hand. It is corrupt and both political parties are to blame. On the other hand, there is synergy between newspaper, radio, television, and Internet. Look at the Boston Phoenix’s operation. There is great synergy there between the radio, weekly newspaper, and Internet operation. So, why couldn’t they start a free or paid daily, or buy one if they wanted to? They can’t, due to the rules for companies that own radio stations. That is foolishness. It doesn’t make any sense. Hence, the loosening of the rule isn’t that bad of an idea …Except, under current conditions, the loosening of the rule could create further – and even more worrisome – consolidation.The flip, is that if you have enough capital, you can go out and start your own newspaper. With even less capital, you can start your own news Web site. While you’ll never be able to compete with the huge boys, you can compete with the small boys, if you really, really want to. As it is now, the public has truly not been served by the radical – and it was radical – Telecom Bill of 1996. It was – and is – a shame. Look at the Boston market. I noticed this the other day. WAAF is broadcasting on two signals right near each other during a scan of the FM dial. There are other companies in New Hampshire that own two FMs broadcasting the same crap radio within a market. It’s offensive to the listener. What the FCC ideally should do is revoke the Telecom Bill of 1996 and re-write the rules. Companies which own four or more stations in a market should have to sell off the stations to other entities to create true competition again. Two stations max in a market, in as many markets as they like, and allow those companies to own or create daily newspapers, if they wanted to. Problems solved.

  4. Steve Safran

    Dan: Excellent expansion on your comments from Buzzmachine.But I think we need to push further. These are no longer newspaper companies/TV stations/radio stations. These are local media outlets. As long as they think of themselves as the former, they are doomed to a lack of creativity and therefore a lack of financial growth.I don’t think journalism is dying – but it is changing. It’s up to the journalists to see it through a time of change. We can B* and moan about how things aren’t the way they used to be, or we can try to contribute to positive change.Great essay!

  5. man who thinks WAAF isn't all that bad

    Look at the Boston market. I noticed this the other day. WAAF is broadcasting on two signals right near each other during a scan of the FM dial. There are other companies in New Hampshire that own two FMs broadcasting the same crap radio within a market. It’s offensive to the listener.Tony, you can’t EVER make decisions about this issue based on qualitative judgments. What if I found WAAF’s programming to be excellent through-and-through? I’d find the Boston scene to be ideal, now wouldn’t I?

  6. Jon Garfunkel

    Dan– I enjoyed your piece as well; I’m glad you took the time to give this the necessary historic perspective. Too bad it won’t be read by as many people who read Jarvis’s piece. :-/

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Thanks, Jon. I’ve also noticed that most of the comments on Buzz Machine are variations on the theme of “mega dittos, Jeff!” I’m not sure Jarvis has many readers who are not already acolytes.

  8. Aaron Read

    By the way, it’s a flawed concept that there is inherent synergy between newspaper, radio and TV journalism. One of the first things I learned in journalism classes is that reporting for TV is very different from reporting for print is very different from reporting for radio.This isn’t to say that a print journalist can’t be a good radio journalist…but it takes a separate skillset that not every journalist has; even those that’re very good at print.Moreover, there are MANY examples of journalists in one media trying to make the jump to another and not doing a very good job at it. Or doing well at some points but making key mistakes at others. There’s also a typical rivalry between many of the members of each media…this typically leads to unnecessary stress in an already inherently stressful job environment. The implosion of Washington Post radio is, allegedly, a prime example of this.There’s also the dirty little secret that much of the news you hear, see or read ultimately all comes from reports the Associated Press files. This issue is usually exacerbated by consolidation across different types of media, not alleviated, since you have fewer people competing to research stories to get the scoop on each other.The upshot is, I don’t buy the argument that consolidation across different media is inherently beneficial to the concept of journalism. If anything, the opposite is more likely to be true.(PS What happened to the Simpsonized Dan icon? I liked it. 🙂

  9. Jon Garfunkel

    Apropos of the other thread, posting a contrary comment on BuzzMachine is sort of like being a Jew at Christmas. ;-)You might feel smart, and you might find solace with like-minded folk, but sooner or later the chorus overwhelms you.

  10. Tony

    ‘AAF fan wrote: Tony, you can’t EVER make decisions about this issue based on qualitative judgments. What if I found WAAF’s programming to be excellent through-and-through? I’d find the Boston scene to be ideal, now wouldn’t I?My “crap radio” comment was an offhanded remark and not geared towards ‘AAF but the shitty classic rock stations Nassau has in New Hampshire that play the same songs over and over again. One will be moving to WEEI’s sports network soon so at least listeners get a second choice of something else. The larger argument I’m trying to make has nothing to do with the content of a radio station – it has to do with consolidation and competition. By allowing ‘AAF to broadcast on two FM signals which overlap each other in the same market, ‘AAF’s parent company, Entercom, has effectively stop a potential competitor either within their own company or if they weren’t allowed to own so many radio stations. That goes against what the Telecom Bill was supposed to do. That LIMITS competition; it didn’t increase it at all and it has happened in every major market across the country. No one – except the company – is served by having WAAF broadcasting on both 97.7 and 107.3. It has NOTHING to do with the content of the station. Ideally, though, if the two signals were owned by two separate companies or if there was a rule against simulcasting in the same market, there could be a choice could potentially not be crappy. Of course, the opposite is true – there could be two crappy radio stations. But, at least you would have a choice between two crappy radio stations instead of one being simulcast. If, say, Entercom was simulcasting the ‘AAF programming on a Worcester station and a Manch station and a Burlington, VT station and a Portland, Maine station, I would have no problem with that. But to be broadcasting on a Worcester station and a Brockton station, that completely overlap, is ridiculous. This is not what the Telecom Bill was supposed to do.

  11. Tony

    I would argue, and I have elsewhere, that the WashPost radio implosion had more to do with more competing news/talks stations on the air in the market – six , I believe, including one owned by Bonneville, the same company in partnership with the Post – than a newspaper running a radio station. To say, Well, it didn’t work for the WashPost so it won’t work, is just a bunch of hogwash. They had HUGE overhead they could never pay for right out of the gate. They didn’t start off small and ease into it. And with all those competing stations, it was doomed to fail. Had it been done different, in a different market, I bet it would have worked. The Phoenix example, however, is a good one that works very well and how it could potentially work well with a daily. What if they were allowed to publish a BostonNOW-like publication along with their weekly. Would it work? Well, probably not because there are four dailies in Boston now. Would it have worked a few years ago if allowed? Yeah, because there was only two dailies. The idea also works with news/talk specifically. That is why there are many cross-advertising deals between newspapers and talk radio stations. It wouldn’t necessarily work with Lite AC and a newspaper, in my mind. Most people don’t know this but much of the copy which is read during news hours on talk radio is scripted by a service like the Associated Press. Essentially, they are a newspaper operation that also gathers up text for radio. That would be part of the role of a daily newspaper owning a radio station. Also, as far as marketing goes, the company can offer a complete package to advertisers instead of having to go to two or three or maybe even four different companies for marketing. One stop shop, better rates for advertisers, assuming there is competition in the marketplace, so it would be a better deal for the consumer.

  12. man who thinks WAAF isn't all that bad

    Actually Tony, speaking as a broadcast engineer, WAAF 107.3 and WKAF 97.7 don’t really overlap in their signals.Check out these links to the two stations’ contour maps; the red contour is the station’s 60dBu service contour.WAAF 103.7 mapWKAF 97.7 map(make sure you right-click these links and choose “open in new window” to see them right)Yes, there is some overlap but not as much as you’d think. And, more importantly, not over the main population centers.Granted, FCC contours are next to useless for actually determining whether or not a given signal is “receivable” by a given listener. Even the contour standard acknowledges that: it’s the “F(50,50)” contour…receivable by 50% of the population for 50% of the time. Pretty low bar to jump over.But since “reception” is such a variable quality, the line in the sand had to be drawn somewhere when it comes to deciding where a station will cause too much interference to another station for both to share the same spectral space. The contour system is what we got (actually for commercial stations it’s largely done simply by distance between transmitters, but contours can play a role as well).Ultimately, even though many radios around Boston can receive both 97.7 and 103.7 just fine, from a regulatory standpoint it’s no different than, say, WFNX’s repeater WFEX up in Peterborough, NH.

  13. Kirk

    Dan: I finally found time to read your comments here, which expand the dialogue from Jarvis’s blog in a better way.I’ve seen the consolidation argument play out both ways, from the now apocryphal story of how Clear Channel failed in Minot–to how a combination of Media General’s print, broadcast and online newsrooms in Tampa has actually produced coverage that none of them could have done alone.I completely agree with you that we are just about to be at the point where the platform is irrelevant. Good journalism is good journalism. The question will be how to allow the business model to work that can support the quality local news operations that everyone claims to want, because that quality doesn’t come for free and the financial backers want a return on their investment, so there is safety in numbers when convincing either Wall Street brokers or Main Street bankers to write those checks, because there are few local folks in any given market that can foot the bill on their own for very long.My biggest fear is that without some ability to lash together local media properties of all types to survive and grow, we’ll see fewer newsrooms because it will be deemed better business to run cheaper programming and leave the news to one or two television outlets in many markets–which is pretty much what’s happened in radio.And the FCC’s track record of regulating or de-regulating any media concern to encourage the best thing for the public is….well, let’s just say less than encouraging, at best.

  14. Tony Schinella

    Hey Engineer: FYI, I did look at the maps to make sure what I heard in the car wasn’t a figment of my imagination – both WAAF and WKAF coming in complete crystal clear the entire way up Route 3 between Lexington and Manchester.When this subject later came up here, I used the previous car reference accordingly. Not to argue semantics, but from a regulatory standpoint, there should be a difference between the two examples. The Peterborough transponder for WFNX, at 170 watts, just barely reaches Nashua. WFNX at 1,700 watts barely reaches over Nashua. Compare that to the WAAF signals [20,000 and 1,700]. WFNX gets scratchy at Nashua and then you can pick up the other station if you like. If you are north of Manch, you can listen to 92.1 FM.But, if you took the two WAAF signals and overlapped them on a map, more than half of the signal overlaps between the two stations: WAAF reaches from Manch, through Boston, to Taunton and Providence and around to Worcester; WKAF reaches from Lowell through Boston, to Tauton and Providence around to Worcester. You could argue that since WKAF reaches Plymouth, it expands the listenership. Assuming, as you said, that the contours on the maps are correct and they seem to be from my car radio. The simple fact is that the bulk of both WAAF signal’s listenership is the same and therefore, the should not be allowed to simulcast as they are, IMHO. This is just one example. There are tons more out there.

  15. man who thinks WAAF isn't all that bad

    Tony, you can argue semantics all day long…but the bottom line is that there is no difference between the two examples, period.Perhaps I should’ve been more clear, but since you work in radio I didn’t think I needed to be: the signal contours clearly demonstrate that WAAF and WKAF are in SEPARATE MARKETS. WAAF is in the Worcester market (as defined by Arbitron) and WKAF is probably more South Coast, but these days could certainly be considered a true Boston market station. While it is true that parts of each stations’ signal partially cover each others’ markets, by no means does WAAF put a service contour over the core Boston market any more than WKAF puts one over Worcester proper.Even getting into the gory details, WKAF’s service contour covers 2.3 million people, WAAF’s service contour covers 2.1 million. The area of overlap between the two is only 540,000…or barely 12% of the total listenership between the two. Not all that much.If you want to rail against something…rail against the fact that Entercom has – for decades – programmed WAAF as a Boston station at the expense of the Worcester market. But don’t cook up some half-baked whining about simulcasting on somewhat-overlapping signals. Public radio has been doing this for decades yet I don’t see you (or anyone else, including myself) griping about that.Also, high-profile obscenity cases notwithstanding, the FCC is not in the business of regulating content. Nor should it be…a lot of people have forgotten what a disaster the Fairness Doctrine really was. I *really* don’t like the idea of the FCC telling stations what they can and cannot put on the air. Inevitably they will take a position I don’t agree with and suddenly it looks very Orwellian.

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