At the end of June, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a proposal that would keep in place an absolute ban that prohibits investors from owning both a daily newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. Established more than forty years ago, in 1975, this ban on media cross-ownership seemed to make sense at the time. Those were the days of gasoline rationing, Bell-bottoms, and offices buzzing with the rat-a-tat-tat of the typewriter. And, the media landscape in a local market was essentially limited to three television stations, a couple of newspapers and several radio stations. It was reasonable for the then-FCC to be concerned that one owner would control all of the news and editorial viewpoints in a community.
A few things have changed since then. The advent of straight-leg jeans (several times), punk rock (several times) and, oh yes, that thing called the “Internet”.
In 2016, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, it is absolutely unconscionable that the expert Federal agency for our nation’s communications policy wants to hang on to this ban that is restricting investments in local journalism. With the explosion of media in the marketplace with magazines, newspapers, television, radio, cable TV, satellite TV, satellite radio and, of course, Internet search and distribution platforms, there are no longer any barriers to entry in the dissemination of news, opinions, entertainment and other information.
At a time when the business models of news organizations are extremely challenged, the FCC is making it MORE difficult to attract needed investment and develop organizations with the scale and scope needed to survive. The FCC claims to want to protect the existence of minority voices in the news business but instead, they are doing everything in their power to restrict the capacity of small and medium-sized news organizations to attract capital.
As Internet giants such as Facebook and Google aggregate journalism and collectively command more than 60 percent of the digital advertising marketplace, the FCC is preventing local media – who do most of the original reporting for our communities – from scaling operations to more effectively compete for disaggregated advertising revenues. Some people claim that newspapers are dying, while the FCC clings to the idea that they are monopolists. Newspapers are not dying, but the one thing anyone should be quite clear on is that they aren’t monopolists!
In 1996, Congress directed the FCC to conduct a comprehensive review of its media regulations – every four years – and to “repeal or modify any regulation that it determines to be no longer in the public interest.” In short, Congress mandated that media ownership regulations must reflect today’s media. How is it that the FCC can approve AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, as it did last year, but continue to prohibit an owner of a local broadcast station with resources and a commitment to journalism from investing in a local newspaper?
Limiting newspapers’ access to investment and growth – in today’s climate – just does not make sense. But then again, not much in Washington makes sense these days.
David Chavern serves as President & CEO of the News Media Alliance. Chavern has built a career spanning 30 years in executive strategic and operational roles, and most recently completed a decade-long tenure at the United States Chamber of Commerce.