Every so often, the FCC considers revising its ownership rules for media entities. And every time, the response is utterly predictable: Left-wing and libertarian groups band together to decry media consolidation as undemocratic, huge corporations band together to cry that they will soon be bankrupt if they can't buy up even more of the broadcast spectrum, and the general public yawns.
The vote goes according to the political leanings of the FCC, as it did in 2003 when the laws governing ownership of local-market broadcast outlets were relaxed.
It's too bad that regulation of media ownership is such a politicized issue. Both sides agree - or pretend to agree - that diversity in voice in the media is good, even essential, for a functioning democracy. Usually, that leaves regulation advocates arguing that corporate control of larger chunks of media outlets is by definition a decrease in diverse voices, and corporations themselves arguing that they are merely hands-off business entities whose ownership has no bearing on the diversity of editorial content.
Now, as the FCC is revisiting its regulations once again, a new twist in the basic arguments has emerged. The rise of new media and Internet news has offered media corporations another tack to pursue: There are so many media outlets now, they say, that you should let us own more of the traditional print and broadcast outlets in local markets - after all, they're not as important as they used to be, right?
Not so, says a new research report prepared by the advocacy groups Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and Free Press. In what may well serve as a touch of the brake to the runaway train of "new media eating old media" forecasts, the report points out that, "Today, people living in all but a handful of the very largest cities generally have access to only one local newspaper and at most four local television stations producing local news."
The continuing influence of those outlets across the majority of the US should be a powerful incentive for the FCC not to allow big newspapers to own TV stations in their markets, or to increase the number of stations one corporation can own in a single locale, the groups say.
According to the groups' research, about one third of consumers say they use local TV and newspapers most often to get their local news; 10% use radio; and only 4%-7% use the Internet as a primary source (and most of those use the Web sites of newspapers or other traditional media outlets).
"If we are concerned about the dissemination of information, not just opinion, about local public affairs," the report states, "traditional local outlets remain the dominant sources."
This report gets at a key point that is sometimes lost in the panic over the shrinking newspaper industry: Local news is a good business, and it is in good shape, and local outlets totally own it. The shrinkage in the newspaper industry is not, by and large, because the Internet is competing with papers on the local news front; it is because the Internet is killing papers in classified advertising, national and global news, and opinion. As soon as papers tighten up enough to reassert themselves as primarily locally targeted entities, they will see their businesses stabilize.
In a rational world, these basic facts would be enough to convince the FCC not to loosen restrictions on ownership of local outlets. As good as the local news business is, it is quite possible for the editorial product itself to become compromised because breaking into a local news market from the outside is exceedingly difficult.
Everyone - citizens, politicians, media companies, and PR firms - should care about maintaining diversity in local news. Consumers haven't abandoned traditional local news outlets yet, but too much consolidation can easily make the product bland enough that they will. In that case, everybody loses.