Let the dinosaurs huddle

Well, I came that close to agreeing with the head of the FCC.

In today’s Times, Kevin Martin argues for a loosening of the rules prohibiting cross-ownership of newspapers and TV stations to help save newspapers from financial doom. But he loosens them only so much, fearful, I’m sure, of unlocking the antimedia rage genie that bit his predecessor, Michael Powell, so badly.

A company that owns a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities in the country should be permitted to purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market. But a newspaper should be prohibited from buying one of the top four TV stations in its community. In addition, each part of the combined entity would need to maintain its editorial independence.

He doesn’t go nearly far enough. I say the ban should be lifted entirely and that cross-owned companies should be allowed to merge entirely and for more reasons that Martin gives. First, I agree with him that enabling newspaper and TV companies to join together in a market will give them both efficiencies that will help extend the limited life of the print business model; it buys them time and if that means time for development — instead of time to milk the old cow before she keels over — that’s good.

Media consolidation is a boogeyman we don’t need to be afraid of anymore. Clear Channel, the great consolidator, had to go private because the market wouldn’t support it anymore. Tribune Company, the wunderkind of cross-ownership with a paper, TV, radio, online, and a sports franchise in the Chicago market, has been taken over by a builder. Giant Knight Ridder fell into the hands of giant McClatchy, which just took a huge write-off against its plummeting value. Consolidation today is no longer about conquering the world. It is, as I’ve said here often, about huddling together against the cold wind of the internet. Let them huddle, I say, or they’ll die sooner. Martin apparently agrees.

But there’s another reason to allow — no, encourage — cross-ownership: multimedia literacy. Here I am arguing that newspaper people need to learn how to make radio and TV and the internet and that TV people need to learn to tell stories across all media. And so wouldn’t it be good for the journalists in both tribes to merge and learn each others’ ways? Couldn’t (notice I said ‘couldn’t’ not ‘wouldn’t’) that improve the journalism on both sides? Isn’t there a chance that a wisely managed, larger newsroom could waste less resources matching each other on commodity news and go out and report real news?

I’m not so optimistic or foolish to believe that every consolidated, cross-owned, converged newsroom would operate with such strategic wisdom. Some would just use the merger as an excuse to reduce staff so as to squeeze out a last drop of milk. But you can’t regulate and legislate smart management.

Why not give them a chance to invent new ways to gather and serve journalism across all media and all distribution channels? Somebody might do it right and that somebody probably wouldn’t be in a top 20 market — the only ones Martin wants to free up — but in a smaller market. That somebody would show the way for others as a few — too few — newspapers and TV stations are doing for each other now.

Let the dinosaurs join together and lay their last eggs.