Ease cross-media ownership rules

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 7:53 PM

FCC rules should reflect news media's rapid transformation.

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Every four years, the Federal Communications Commission undergoes a legislatively mandated review of media ownership, and FCC commissioners soon will vote on proposed adjustments to newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rules.

If approved, new FCC rules would generally allow cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the top 20 markets, assuming that the TV station is not one of the top four in a market and that eight "major media voices" would remain after a transaction. The current regulatory framework would be maintained for smaller markets.

In addition to those changes, the new rules would generally allow cross-ownership of newspapers and radio stations regardless of the size of the market.

The proposals reflect the evolving media landscape. In fact, the proposed changes, while welcome, do not go far enough to ensure the vitality of local news organizations that are essential to democracy. The FCC should allow even top-four TV stations to combine with newspapers.

A decade ago, when media ownership rules became a hot topic during the presidency of George W. Bush, this page took a different position. Our view has changed because media and society have symbiotically, and fundamentally, changed. This is true over the last decade, certainly, but also since 1975, when many of the current regulations were originally crafted.

Compared with the technologically limited media environment in that era, an explosion of options has led to a cacophony of voices offering news, analysis and opinion.

The FCC acknowledges as much in an exhaustive report released in December 2011. "The proliferation of broadband Internet and other new technologies has had a dramatic impact on the media marketplace," the report stated. "For the broadcast and newspaper industries, the growth of these new technologies both challenges established business models and provides opportunities to reach new audiences and generate new revenue streams."

Anyone following news about the news business would concur with the FCC. Many U.S. newspapers have lost circulation and cut staff. A few have cut back on the number of days they publish print editions or even have ceased publication.

Newspapers have innovated, and many, including the Star Tribune, are generating new revenues from digital subscriptions and advertising. However, overall advertising revenue remains in decline.

In order to continue to invest in covering the communities they serve, for-profit media companies need to attract investment. Allowing more cross-media ownership would increase the number of potential investors in quality journalism.

There are many well-meaning voices who oppose any further consolidation. But what they should fear is a permanent "stop the presses" -- not a "Citizen Kane"-style media monopoly.

Among the FCC's fundamental goals are "competition, localism and diversity and how to balance these goals when they conflict." Those are laudable goals. Media ownership and coverage should reflect an increasingly diverse America through a variety of media voices. The most immediate challenge to that goal is lack of investment in professional newsgathering by newspapers, radio and TV.

The FCC seemingly agrees. "We continue to believe that the nation's largest markets can accommodate some cross-ownership without unduly harming viewpoint diversity," the agency wrote in the 2011 report. "... Thus, we believe that the appropriate definition of localism today, in the digital age, may not be the same as in decades past."

Very little in society and media is the same as in decades past. FCC media ownership rules shouldn't be, either.

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Editorial of Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minn.

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