In the debate about whether local media outlets should be allowed to merge, there's a lot at stake for all of us who care about our community. That's because local sources of news – local newspapers and television affiliates, for instance – provide residents with most of their information on hot local issues, such as voting guides for upcoming mayoral elections, outcomes of the school board and zoning board meetings, and investigative reports and muckraking journalism. Consolidation compromises high-quality coverage of local news and information.
The Dangers of Local TV Stations Merging with Local Newspapers
The FCC has allowed mergers between newspapers and local broadcasters in certain circumstances, for instance, if one media outlet was failing. But, until 2003, there had been a longstanding rule to prevent the dominant local newspaper from being bought out by the local dominant TV station. In 2003, the FCC voted to eliminate this newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban.
Although a federal court has stepped in to prevent the FCC from doing so, it's important to underscore that the FCC knowingly tried to eliminate the rule and would have allowed mergers in 175 of the 210 media markets in the country. The newspaper market was already less diverse than it had been 25 years before, with only one-third of the newspaper owners than there were in 1975. The FCC's order would have set the stage for an even further reduction in the number of independent news voices.
The FCC's Argument for the Rule Change
The FCC's order was based on the assumption that radio and the Internet are major sources of local news and information. Unfortunately, this is not the reality of how people get information. According to a 2004 study by Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America, the FCC vastly underestimated the importance of newspapers, and overestimated the importance of the Internet and radio.
More than 80 percent of Americans get their local news and information from local television and newspapers. Cable TV is primarily a distributor of national news, not local news, through national news channels such as CNN and MSNBC. And news content on the Internet is almost entirely repurposed from local TV and newspapers — it is another distribution channel, not a unique source of original reporting.
FCC Treats Major Networks Differently
The FCC's proposed new rules preserved the ban on mergers between the major networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX) because each network had such a large presence in the local markets and controlled so much of the broadcasting. Ironically, though, it ignored an identical problem when it came to newspaper/TV station mergers.
Both TV and newspapers produce and distribute local news coverage, and such mergers could create entities that dominate the local media market as much as the television combinations prohibited under the FCC rules. The ban on mergers between major players should also be applied to both TV and newspapers, not just to national networks, particularly because newspapers and television stations play such an important role in creating an informed local electorate and providing the basis for a robust civic discourse.
The Communications Workers of America, America's largest communications and media union, has been actively engaged in the fight to preserve the ban on mergers between local TV stations and newspapers in the same market.