Local media content shouldn't be a luxury

by Eric Klinenberg, Seattle Times

Can you still hear the sounds of Seattle when you turn on your radio?

When you watch your local newscast, can you find local news? Do your daily and weekly newspapers offer a good supply of original, primary reporting?

During the past five years, I've traveled across the country asking these questions of citizens, political officials and journalists. I've studied what happened to our media since the controversial Telecommunications Act of 1996, when Republicans and Democrats joined hands to relax longstanding ownership limits and allow a small number of large corporations to dominate local markets.

The responses are alarming — even for Seattle, where, thanks to the city's relative affluence and robust civic life, the media market is more competitive, and the content more diverse, than in most other towns.

Not long ago, Americans considered local news and entertainment as necessary for our democracy and culture. In today's consolidated media system, however, truly local content is becoming a luxury good.

In the television industry, I discovered stations that scheduled local news programs throughout the day but refused to increase the staff levels. Instead, they recycled the same stories and used scripted packages, including promotional video news releases from businesses and government agencies, to fake local reports.

Political news is scarce, even during highly contested elections. Consider Washington's 2004 gubernatorial election, when Christine Gregoire won by 133 votes and was not declared the official victor until January 2005. During the last month of the campaign, only 5 percent of Seattle's local newscasts had a story about the election. Collectively, Seattle television stations devoted 14 times more airtime to teasers and bumper music than to the gubernatorial race.

In the radio industry, I learned about hundreds of DJs, news reporters and talk-show hosts who lost their programs after conglomerates bought their stations and installed sophisticated "voice-tracking" systems to replace local talent. Small, independent station owners quickly learned that they couldn't compete with vertically integrated entertainment companies such as Clear Channel, which controls not only some 1,200 stations (including seven in Seattle) but also the nation's top radio syndicator, the leading media advertising firm and the world's largest fleet of concert venues.

Does anyone believe that big radio is better? Listeners I met complained about losing the programs and voices that once made their hometowns feel special, like home. Young musicians struggled to get airtime because regional programmers made playlists without regard for local talent. Veterans, including the biggest stars, charged that big broadcasters inflicted "cultural damage" by standardizing station formats everywhere. Along with 46 other cities, Seattle has KISS-FM. It also has the same classic rock, oldies, pop and country stations I found everywhere else. Not long ago, you could travel to Philadelphia, Chicago or San Francisco and hear the cities by turning on the dial. After consolidation, most cities sound the same.

What about the daily paper? Sixty years ago, 80 percent of the nation's newspapers were locally owned and operated. Sure, the journalistic quality was uneven, but the printed words were unmistakably homemade. Today, roughly 80 percent of the nation's newspapers are owned by chains, and the great majority of cities have only one major daily.

Seattle is doubly fortunate, since for now it has both a locally owned paper and a serious competitor. In other cities, monopoly newspapers have slashed their editorial staffs and eliminated important beats, substituting wire-service copy and syndicated columns for original reporting. I observed once-busy newsrooms where rows of empty desks and unused chairs gave them an eerie, deserted feel. The diminished supply of local watchdogs results in fewer checks on powerful institutions and individuals, and countless untold stories about news we need to know.

But, I did not discover such desertion in every part of the media landscape. In the past decade, citizens grew so fed up with their local offerings that they began taking matters into their own hands. We all know about the rising generation of bloggers, citizen journalists and independent media producers. They have made important inroads into the media system, even if they have not added enough local reporting to compensate for the loss of professional journalists.

The less-reported yet equally important trend is that today millions of Americans — including religious conservatives in the Christian Coalition, progressives in MoveOn.org, the Gun Owners of America and the ACLU — are participating in the media reform movement, a bipartisan attempt to support policies that actually improve our access to news, information and cultural programming.

In Seattle, Reclaim the Media (www.reclaimthemedia.org) has led campaigns demanding press accountability, expanding low-power radio licenses and preserving public-access television. It also connects local media activists with the national movement.

This year, citizen initiatives to democratize media policy are more important than ever. The Federal Communications Commission is issuing new ownership rules. Congress is considering network-neutrality legislation that would require telephone and cable companies to preserve equal access to all sites on the Internet. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently said, "We're back at square one. It's all up for grabs."

How do you feel about Seattle's media? Isn't it time to speak out?

Eric Klinenberg, associate professor of sociology at New York University, is the author of "Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media." He'll be speaking at Town Hall in Seattle on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003549966_klinenberg01.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey