Martin's flawed media plan

[New York Times editorial]

Decades ago, when most Americans relied on just a few news outlets, it made sense to bar companies from owning a newspaper and a broadcaster in the same city and limit the number of TV stations a single company could own. That was the best way to ensure that Americans had many different sources of information and the diversity of views needed for a healthy democracy.

The world has changed, with dozens of cable channels and endless Internet sites, and it makes sense to reconsider the rules. Still, it is hard to understand the logic behind the way Kevin Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wants to relax the 32-year-old ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership.

Mr. Martin has proposed loosening the rules to allow newspapers in the nation’s 20 largest cities to combine with a TV or radio station as long as it is not one of the top four and the merger leaves at least eight independent media voices in the market. Mr. Martin has said his plan — on which the commission is scheduled to vote tomorrow — would be a lifesaver for local newspapers that have been losing readers and advertisers to the Internet, allowing them to share the costs of news-gathering across a newspaper and a TV station.

But you don’t get one healthy media company by combining two sick ones. The strategic challenge for newspapers is not cutting costs, but how to attract a larger share of online advertising and make money off the millions of people who read them free online.

Mr. Martin’s plan, moreover, could dangerously reduce media diversity. Not only would the mergers allowed under the rule change eliminate independent voices, but they also might crowd rivals out of the news business. A study of F.C.C. data by consumer groups indicated that less news is broadcast in cities where companies have been granted waivers to the rules to allow them to own both newspapers and broadcasters.

While these concerns might not loom so large if the proposals were truly limited to the biggest cities, Mr. Martin’s proposal includes loopholes that could open the door to consolidation on a much broader scale: depending on the concentration of the media market, it could allow both mergers in smaller cities and mergers involving top-four TV stations if the companies were in financial distress, promised to increase investment and the amount of local news, and vowed to keep their editorial lines independent.

For all the technological advances that have shaken American media over the last 30 years, remarkably little has changed about who produces the local news. Internet outlets repurpose and comment on the news. A few cable channels provide national news. But in many small and even medium-sized cities there are only two entities that put money into local news-gathering: the local newspapers and the TV stations.

Mr. Martin has said he is willing to work with other commissioners to find language ensuring that there is a “high hurdle” for mergers that are in smaller cities or involve top TV stations. That is welcome. But as it stands, his proposal would potentially allow an unhealthy media consolidation that would not serve the public good.

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