Media ownership rules were adopted in 1975 to prevent cross ownership of radio, broadcast and newspaper in the same market as a way to promote localism, diversity and competition. The ban was created in an environment where there were limited ways to communicate with the public, leading to concern over a dominating voice for news and views. Clearly, newspapers are no longer the only source of information. Are you reading this on paper?
Today, we have countless outlets for information. According to the American Press Institute, on average, Americans reported that, during the past week, they followed the news using four different devices or technologies. The most frequently utilized devices include television (87%), laptops/computers (69%), radio (65%) and print newspapers or magazines (61%).
Twenty years ago, Congress amended the Communications Act with a provision – Section 202 (h) requiring the Federal Communications Commission to review its Media Ownership rules, including this ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership, every four years to justify that its rules are “essential” to the public interest or repeal them. The FCC attempted to change this outdated ban twice in early 2000s but the orders were struck down and remanded for procedural or other reasons unrelated to the cross-ownership issue. The FCC has not completed its 2010 media ownership review – as required by law – and has rolled it into a 2014 review. The 3rd Circuit Court, recognizing the FCC tardiness in fulfilling this mandate recently told the FCC to come to a decision based on their very extensive record.
Two of the past Orders concluded that there was not sufficient evidence on the record to maintain the media cross ownership ban, as it exists today. However, the rules still remain perfectly intact, preventing an owner of a broadcast station from investing in a newspaper in the same market.
We have presented a wealth of evidence, which the FCC has agreed with, that demonstrates the benefits of cross ownership through examples of markets where broadcast/newspaper cross ownership exists because they are operating under a waiver. Cross-collaboration and investigative journalism at the local level continues to thrive.
Lines are starting to blur between broadcast and newspaper and convergence will take place whether the ban exists or not. At a national level, The New York Times received a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for a multimedia project about skiers killed in an avalanche and the science of such disasters. The Detroit Free Press received an Emmy for documentaries that live exclusively online. At a local level, Facebook Live is one of the many ways local newspapers now engage with their audience through streaming videos.
Local news is also moving digital, such as the Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and ARLnow.com across the Potomac in Arlington, VA. We also see interesting collaborations between traditional media outlets and nonprofit organizations such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Why lift the ban now? Who cares?
Some may ask whether anyone still cares about the ban given the fact that many media companies have divided up their broadcast and newspaper properties. We strongly argue that lack of interest in purchasing newspaper properties is not justification for keeping the rule.
First, it is fundamentally wrong that the ban – a government regulation – could be dictating marketplace behavior against investment in high-quality, original journalism. Since the recession, our largest revenue stream is half of what it used to be and the demand for content has increased exponentially. This ban further harms the prospects for healthy long-term investigative journalism, which our society relies on for reporting the truth and disseminating valuable and reliable information.
Second, media companies dividing their broadcasting and newspaper properties could demonstrate the opposite: that there is indeed interest in investing in newspapers and that the ban is preventing that investment from taking place. Just look at post-split behavior where companies like Gannett, after splitting from their broadcast properties, made strategic investments in newspapers around the country.
In recent years John Henry and Glen Taylor bought their home town newspapers, The Boston Globe and The Minneapolis Star Tribune,respectively. Other civic leaders are interested in buying their local newspapers because of the role it plays in the community. Repealing the ban would not lead to massive consolidation but might give the flexibility to allow a local broadcast station owner to invest in the local newspaper in her community.
Lastly, one of the biggest reasons it is difficult to determine if an interest exists is because marketplace behavior has been driven by this rule for 40 years. We don’t know life without it.
We call upon the FCC to do the right thing and allow for investment in long-term investigative journalism. Repealing the 40-year-old ban on media cross ownership would unquestionably be in the public interest.
Danielle Coffey is Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at News Media Alliance