Cross-Ownership, Quality, and How the Future May Look
The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) -- along with companies like Media General, Tribune, and Media News Group -- can't wait for the FCC to act on cross-ownership.
Since 1975, the FCC has not allowed a newspaper company to purchase a TV station that is in the same market area. One purpose of the rule was to preserve a diversity of viewpoints in local media.
A study for the FCC said, "By our count, there were 17 cross-owned newspaper-television combinations and 10 other newspaper-radio-television combinations in communities throughout the United States in mid-2002." The NAA says there are 40 such cross-ownerships.
The FCC is bound by federal rule and court order to reconsider whether the cross-ownership rule (and several others) are still necessary and the Commission appears ready to say it is not.
Some media companies want to create a "synergy" between their print/broadcast and online properties. When he testified before the FCC in February, John Sturm, president of the NAA, cited several such "convergence" projects by co-owned properties in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Sioux City, Neb.; and Quincy, Ill.
In May, while testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Dean Singleton, the Vice Chairman and CEO of Media News Group (also the publisher of the Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune and former president of the NAA) laid out his vision for how cross-ownership could improve journalism.
Singleton said, "Newspapers will add new resources to struggling television and radio enterprises, and those broadcast outlets will strengthen newspapers as the number of media choices continue to explode in a changing media environment. Relaxation of the rules will result in dramatically improved information flow in each local market — market by market," Singleton testified.
Here is how Singleton envisioned the cross-ownership playing out in some other cities where his company has newspapers:
Fairbanks, Alaska, is perhaps the most remote, isolated community in America. There are four commercial television stations in the market. All struggle financially. One station covers news with a staff of eight, another has six, the third has two, and the fourth has no local news gathering capacity. My newspaper employs 31 in the news department. Under today's rules, my newspaper thrives with an award-winning news presentation, while the television stations struggle to broadcast even a small amount of local news. There are no commercial news radio stations. In central and northern Alaska, many communities cannot get my newspaper delivered, but they can get television. Imagine how their lives could be improved if I could put my 31 newsroom personnel behind television coverage.
In Eureka, Calif., in another remote section of the country on the North Coast of California, there are four commercial television stations. The strongest station has a news staff of 11, and the other three don't produce substantive local news. My
newspaper devotes 23 people to local news coverage. Imagine the community
service we could provide by putting these news resources behind television and radio
news, especially if we purchase a station that produces no news today.
In Pittsfield, Mass., which covers the western quadrant of Massachusetts, there is no television station there and never has been. But there is a license allocated to the market. But with 51 newsroom employees at my newspaper, I could serve this community with television news for the first time ever. The current restraints, however, do not allow that to happen.
And let me talk about a larger market: Denver, Colo. There are at least three radio stations that call themselves news stations, but they're really not news stations at all. They are talk stations. The largest two have news-gathering staffs of about six, and the other has five. Not much news-gathering resources. But the two newspapers managed by the Denver Newspaper Agency have combined news resources of almost 500. Imagine the public service we could provide by putting our news assets behind a real, full-time news station.
Does cross-ownership improve journalism?
A couple of studies have explored whether Singleton is right -- does cross-ownership strengthen the journalism available in some communities? One study was sponsored by the FCC, and another study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which evaluated 23,000 news stories in 172 news broadcasts.
The Project for Excellence study found, "Stations with cross-ownership -- in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market -- tended to produce higher quality newscasts."
The FCC's study looked at the 2000 election coverage by cross-owned newspaper and television stations in Dallas, L.A., Tampa, Fargo, Hartford, Milwaukee, and others. The study found as often as not, the newspaper and television station took different "slants" on the same story. The study author wrote, "In five of the 10 newspaper-television combinations studied, the overall slant of the coverage broadcast by a company's television station was noticeably different from the overall slant of the coverage provided by the same company's newspaper, and often contradicted the newspaper's endorsement of a candidate. In the other five combinations under study, the overall slant of newspaper coverage of the 2000 campaign was not significantly different from the overall slant of the local television coverage."
But critics like the Economic Policy Institute say these kinds of partnerships only encourage a "sameness" of thinking between TV stations and newspapers. The EPI study said, "There are synergies between broadcast television and newspaper ownership that are not in the public interest. A local television station owned by a newspaper can simply televise a summary of the paper's content, offering no benefits to the consumer, yet it will still be able to dominate the local political and cultural discourse."
Even a columnist for Singleton's Denver Post speaks against the Wal-Mart mentality of media ownership.
How many papers and stations will change hands after Monday?
It's hard to say.
Media General, which owns the Tampa Tribune, WFLA, and TBO Online (all housed in the same building), hopes for a day when it will own TV stations in every market where it also owns a newspaper. The Richmond, Va.-based company owns 25 daily newspapers and 26 television stations.
The Media General Times-Dispatch included this quote, 'We would love to have a TV station in Richmond,' said J. Stewart Bryan III, Media General's chairman and chief executive. 'We would love to have a TV station in any market where we have a newspaper. And we'd love to have a newspaper in any market where we have a TV station.'"
Editor & Publisher magazine says, "Some papers will be ready to buy broadcast immediately if the FCC drops the ban, said Owen Van Essen, president of Santa Fe, N.M.-based Dirks, Van Essen & Murray: 'A few companies who have taken this very seriously are way out in front of this (and) some ... already have deals lined up.'"
E&P says, "Brokers say they don't expect a land rush on broadcast properties. One factor dampening the market is the likelihood that newspapers in the smallest markets will continue to be forbidden from owning a nearby station."
What will cross-ownership look like?
Co-ownership does not mean that print, online, and broadcast newsrooms will happily marry and live in a state of converged and sharing journalistic bliss.
Several of the currently cross-owned television and newspapers are deeply converged but for others, there is barely an outward clue that they are co-owned.
In Milwaukee, for example, look at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website. The only way you would know that the paper also owns a TV station would be if you clicked on the "video button" in midpage or if you happened to notice the tiny WTMJ name at the tippy top of the page. The TV station does not cross-promote the newspaper much either.
But go to the Fargo Forum newspaper and you will be able to watch their co-owned TV station's newscasts on the paper's website. The TV station's page has a top of the page link to the company's radio station, as well.
In Baton Rouge, The Advocate and WBRZ are owned by the same company. They have combined forced to build one strong website.
And in Chicago, the Tribune's staff sometimes shows up on Superstation WGN or CLTV, Tribune's 24-hour cable station.
It does not always take co-ownership to converge.
- KUSA-TV (Gannett) is partners with the Denver Post (Media News Group)
- WTVJ in Miami (NBC-owned) is partners with the Tribune's Sun-Sentinel. The paper also lists WPTV in West Palm, a Scripps Howard station, as a partner.
- New England Cable News, owned by Comcast and Hearst, and the largest regional cable news network in the country, has been partnering with The Boston Globe and Hartford Courant for years.