RBR/TVBR observation: Senator Kerry is right…and wrong


Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) kicked off a hearing on the “Future of Journalism” by declaring that “newspapers look like an endangered species.” True enough. And he was absolutely correct in saying that eliminating the FCC’s crossownership rule won’t save the newspaper business. But why doesn’t he want to try to save a few newspapers?

A few years back, eliminating the ban on owning a daily newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market might have led to a major restructuring of local media, with then-healthy newspapers rushing to acquire network affiliate TV stations for local news synergies. Nowadays, few newspapers have the financial wherewithal to acquire a taco stand, let alone a TV station. And we know of not a single TV owner with even the slightest interest in getting into the daily newspaper business.

Still, the crossownership rule is an anachronism that ought to be eliminated just on principle. There is still a chance that somewhere, somehow a struggling daily newspaper and a local TV station will find that there is business sense in merging. It won’t happen often. But it might keep a handful of local newspapers from going out of business. How can Sen. Kerry not support that?

More importantly, small and medium market television stations desperately need regulatory relief. Folks inside the beltway have always had this backward. Allowing TV duopolies in large markets was welcomed on Wall Street, but didn’t really do much to serve the public interest. In smaller markets, there would be a great deal of benefit to the local community from having stronger local news operations – particularly if the daily newspaper is unable to survive.

People on Capitol Hill believe, quite wrongly, that every ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliate in the United States has a local newsroom. That has never been the case, and the number of newsrooms has been decreasing, not increasing, since lots of new stations for new networks (currently called The CW and MyNetworkTV) were added to the mix, increasing local spot inventory and putting pressure on rates for stations trying to maintain the #2 or #3 news operation in a market. Allowing a strong TV station to acquire a weak one – or two weak ones to merge – would boost news coverage and insure continued viability in these small and medium markets.

“I have frequently spoken out against relaxing media ownership rules, such as the cross media ownership rule, which bans a media company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. Some may even look at the current set of circumstances and think that further relaxing this rule is one step that could be taken to save the old model. But when you look at how fast technology is moving — how the economics of news delivery really work in an age where everything you read in ink can be found on the web faster and cheaper and further from where it is printed — well, you are whistling past the graveyard if you think that relaxing crossownership rules will save newspapers,” Sen. Kerry said.

Why then, Senator, are you so intent on digging graves instead of trying to find cures?