Fighting the future

A herd of journalism-school deans wrote a predictable but also naive and possibly dangerous — and certainly not strategically forward-thinking — attack on media cross-ownership and the FCC’s loosening of its rules in today’s Times op-ed page.

They argue that the government should regulate local broadcast and make content demands on stations. That’s the dangerous part: government regulating news. The deans acknowledge the peril:

Journalists are instinctively libertarian, at least when it comes to journalism. We like the conversation about journalism and the federal government to begin and end with a robust defense of the First Amendment. That’s why journalists have not been leading participants in the debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of broadcasting, even though the future of our profession and its public mission is at stake

Yes, they said libertarian, not liberal. I hope that’s their sense of collective irony.

The naive bits are that government — more than companies and editors — should be held accountable for the quality of journalism, and that that broadcast journalism was ever worth a damn. At most and best, radio and TV distilled and read what newspapers published (and, yes, fewer radio stations today bother doing even that). Reporting on TV news has long been defined as covering fires and press conferences. It’s not about investigation. It’s not about a multiplicity of voices. It’s not about holding the powerful to account. It’s about stand-ups. For these deans not to acknowledge that — for them not to hold these stations and their producers and reporters responsible for what they call journalism and demand a higher standard — is itself shocking. That broadcast outlets have smaller staffs is, the deans say, “a real loss for American democracy.” Oh, come on. They’re just more efficient at covering fires. The deans sound like union organizers trying to protect headcount.

What disturbs me more about their op-ed is the lack of acknowledgment of the business realities of our industry: both broadcast and print outlets cannot operate as they have and that is why they need to consider merging — to survive.

But what disturbs me most is the lack of strategic ambition and imagination the deans exhibit. When the Times wrote a similar, knee-jerk editorial the other day decrying media consolidation, I argued that TV news could be improved if it merged with print and vice versa. I’d quite like to see the deans consider the idea that news is now omnimedia and it makes sense to stop separating newsrooms by old limitations of the means of distribution. It makes sense to get both newsrooms to produce the news in new ways. It could only help broadcast newsrooms to get a sense of real reporting and to get the work of hundreds of print journalists with cameras. And it could only help print newsrooms to be forced to think and work across media.

I’d have hoped that the deans would see the possibilities not only for the industry but also for their students. Now is not the time to preserve the past but to reinvent the future.

(Disclosure: It almost goes without saying but clearly I have a dog in this hunt as a journalism prof. The deans who wrote the Times op-ed are: Roderick P. Hart, dean of the University of Texas journalism school; Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland journalism school; Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School; John Levine, dean of the Northwestern journalism school; Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri journalism school; David M. Rubin, dean of the Syracuse school of public communications; and Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California school of communication.)

  • Eric Jaffa

    In New York, Rupert Murdoch already owns both the NY Post and the local Fox station. Are New Yorkers better served by that than if there were different owners?

  • “The naive bits are that government — more than companies and editors — should be held accountable for the quality of journalism”

    This isn’t “naive,” it is unconstitutional. A clear violation of the First Amendment. A complete misunderstanding of the role of the Press in America. From the leaders of our top journalism schools, who don’t seem to give a rat’s patootie about a free press. I’m going to have a lot more to say about this, and I hope others do, too. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Perry

    >In New York, Rupert Murdoch already owns both the NY Post and the local
    > Fox station. Are New Yorkers better served by that than if there were
    > different owners?

    Yes New Yorkers are better served … given that the NYPost loses huge amounts of money each year and that only Murdoch would be willing to keep financing it.

  • Walter Abbott

    A complete misunderstanding of the role of the Press in America. From the leaders of our top journalism schools, who don’t seem to give a rat’s patootie about a free press.

    This isn’t surprising. I liken it to the Roman Catholic Church’s reaction to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type. They no longer had control over who got to read the Bible. The Church even tried to regulate printing presses via “licensing,” much as David Hazinski suggested in the AJC the other day.

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  • The use of the terms “broadcast” and “television” are the most telling signs that this is an exercise in locking the stable door.

    The medium is called video now, not television. It is available on as many platforms as possible. Attaching conditions ownership of a license to use the shrinking asset knows as a broadcasting antenna is futile.

    Why are these professors so exercised about the quality of the content that is sent out to people who have rabbit ears on top of their television sets? Let’s also insist that the color quality of the rotogravure does not degenerate.

  • “…the lack of acknowledgment of the business realities of our industry: both broadcast and print outlets cannot operate as they have and that is why they need to consider merging — to survive.”

    The “business realities” are, to a great extent, the consequences of owners’ (both broadcast and print) pursuit of maximum short-term profits while failing to invest in their product (and the future). Now that they have achieved papers no one wants to read and stations no one wants to watch/listen to, they’re whining that only more consolidation can save them.

    Just like the kid who killed both his parents, then asked the judge for an easy sentence because he was an orphan.

  • Kirk Varner

    As always Jeff, some great insight into what seemed to be a completely misguided effort to regulate not just broadcast journalism, but all journalism to some degree. Given the fact that most television stations have increased the amount of local news they produce (and the staffs they have) since renewal regulations were streamlined, the argument from these educators was flawed out of the gate–because it lumped radio (which unfortunately has reduced newsrooms and staffs as ownership consolidation ran amok) and television together as if they were one and the same.

    But then you are just as guilty of promoting an old and tired argument (usually made by journalism educators from the print side of the industry) as fact, that all broadcast newsrooms ever cover are fires and press conferences, and if it weren’t for the newspapers, those of us working in the “Fifth Estate” wouldn’t have a clue how to cover the news.

    What’s really a shame about that less-than-enlightened view is that aside from the good work being done by television news staffs in many local markets around the country, it was those same newsrooms that were often the first to embrace the web, citizen journalism and all of the other innovations that are rewriting the rules and business plans not just of broadcast journalism–but of all journalism.

    The reality is that for newsrooms to prosper–regardless of distribution platform–the business models will need to be rewritten in ways no one has thought of yet, and to take the libertarian view–the government has no business having any say in that exercise in both free markets and speech.

  • roger rainey

    Old Grouch, pray tell how these inept broadcasters and papers have the capital to acquire ever larger empires if they are driving the value of their own assets down by mismanagement. On top of that, you seem to have the view that regulation is the equilibrium state of markets, and that it is by the grace of benevolent regulators that any entity is able to buy another. You are coming at this from an archaic and erroneous viewpoint.

    Kirk, I have to agree with you. It is anecdotal from an anonymous internet commenter, but I think local news broadcasts do their job MUCH better than the national newscasts. The national news programs are bland presentations boiled down to a level of meaningless abstraction, presented in a manner not intended to offend anyone, but always with a faux populist viewpoint. Local news seems to vary in quality but actually expends resources on real news.

  • Jeff: The cross-ownership ban made sense 10 years ago. It won’t make sense 10 years from now. But what about the present? Let’s not get too far ahead of technology. Reducing diversity on broadcast and in print would not be a good idea just because it’s possible to do video on the Web. I’ve been watching some great videos at newspaper sites lately, but they’re no substitute for a good television news operation. And there are a few. We have several in Boston.

    Enforcement of the cross-ownership ban ushered in a golden age of television news in Boston, as Channel 5, freed from the strangling ownership of the Boston Herald Traveler in the early 1970s, was acquired by a local group that transformed it into a national leader for much of the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not sure what the long-term lesson is — eventually the local owners cashed in, and today Channel 5 is not what it used to be. Maybe the lesson is that local ownership matters.

    If you ensure diversity of ownership, then there’s no rationale for regulating content. Let’s not forget that broadcast is 20th-century technology, and it’s necessary to have some regulations in place to ensure that this scarce, publicly owned resource serves the public interest. Yes, it’s all moving to the Internet. Yes, we’ll all be able to start our own TV station, and in such a universe it would be an insult to the First Amendment to try to regulate content. But we’re not there yet.

  • Roger, good questions. As examples of what’s wrong (and the way the finances have worked), I’d point to the McClatchy/Knight-Ridder mess for print media, and what’s happening at Clear Channel for broadcast. Regulation may not be the answer, but I challenge anyone who says that allowing these companies to acquire more properties will result in anything other than more cost-cutting and further dimished service to the public. The record says otherwise.

    Your point (and Kirk’s) about local TV news is well taken. It’s a bright spot. Most stations have managed to turn local coverage from a regulation-satisfier into a profit center, and it shows. Combining ownership of a station with the local newspaper, then using television’s profits to help fund the newspaper’s newsroom, sounds like a sure way to improve the quality of both products. The $64 question is will stockholders tolerate lower earnings long enough to let it happen?

    Right now these corporations are in the Red Queen’s race: They’re running to stay even in a declining market, and they’re eating their seed corn in order to keep running. (And any management that backs off gets punished by Wall Street- look at Emmis and Gannett.) The present pattern is unsustainable.

    It didn’t have to be like this. Newspaper (and broadcast) profits should have been sufficient to allow investment in the future, but instead the media corporations got into (or allowed themselves to be trapped in) a quarterly-EPS contest, with the prize going to the company that wrung the most cash out of existing operations. I fear that, so far as newspapers and radio are concerned, the product has been cheapened to the point that the audience has been lost. Newspapers and radio are of little use to the under-30s, who didn’t develop the habits and now may never come back, no matter what happens. Meanwhile, television has it’s own challenges. It may take all its own resources just to adjust to the world of YouTube.

    As to the regulatory furor, I believe it’s a symptom of widespread public dissatisfaction: If the media corporations were producing a product the public liked, the only ones who would care about mergers would be the kooks.

    I don’t have a solution for fixing things, but I can see that “more of what we’ve been doing” isn’t it.

  • Bravos, Jeff. What we have here is a leadership problem combined with a massive failure of imagination. The future is not an echo of the past. A serious crisis in advertising sales wherein sales management is focused on getting better and better at a game being played less and less is a significant driver of the financial problems. Traditional media don’t do well with Wall street because while they generate lots of free cash they are not growing at a rate besting GDP (or the S&P 500), that’s the real problem Emmis and others have – the bitch goddess of Wall street – growth being absent. Newspapers and radio being of little use to those under thirty (Old Grouch says) is hogwash. It’s not newspapers or radio, it’s text and audio. The actual delivery vehicles are increasingly less important than the influence, use and sharing of the content itself. Jeff makes this point when he writes (as he has for years) that the problems are self-created when leadership insists on making the status quo work, tech and patterns of media consumption be damned.

  • David, I agree that it’s “text and audio.” That’s why I wrote “newspapers and radio.” (The under 30s didn’t stop reading and listening, they’re doing it elsewhere.)

  • Steve Safran

    With due respect (and there is indeed much due) to my fellow Bostonian Dan Kennedy, we just can’t look back at the golden years any longer. I’m as Capital J as they come – I just don’t believe that what we have now is the apex of journalism, and anything that comes along destroys it. So I would ask Dan if, in his own estimation, cross-ownership won’t make sense in 10 years, why does it make sense now?

    Further, I ask – wouldn’t a smart owner tailor their product to the needs of the market? Shouldn’t we assume that people who own outlets are doing their best to make those outlets a success? Indeed, Dan is right to point out the change at CVB once it freed itself. But that was then – this is now. We have to get over ourselves and get over our platforms. (BTW: Read Dan’s stuff in the Boston Phoenix. We need more people with a strong critical eye of the local journalism scene like Dan.)

    My learned friend Kirk Varner (The Earl of New Haven) makes a valid point – there is much good happening in local news. Kirk’s team does an excellent job covering the local news on TV and online. But I’m pretty sure Kirk would agree that his group is in the minority. Go into a TV newsroom and you’re more likely than not to find depressed people who are hurting for resources and who want to be better journalists. We just won’t get that by asking the government to protect us from change.

  • Steve: Thank you for your kind response. I’ve thought about what you’ve had to say and expanded on my thoughts <A HREF=””here.

  • Steve: Thank you for your kind response. I’ve thought about what you’ve had to say and expanded on what I wrote earlier here:

    Apologies for that ugly bit of code above. Apparently there’s a trick to doing links here that I don’t understand.

  • Kirk Varner

    As the referees in the NFL are usually quick to begin an explanation…”Upon further review…” Look into the J-School profs chicken little-esque manifesto in the NYT, there is something else missing from their argument. That somehow the prospect of broadcast/newspaper cross-ownership is a brand new spectre that will hold back the oncoming tsunami of change in journalism.

    Point is, cross-ownership isn’t new out there in the real world beyond the gates of academia. There have been real-world examples of cross-ownership since 1975, grandfathered to companies such as Belo, Cox, Gannett, Media General, and Tribune. All have shown little appetite to subvert local reporting in the name of efficiency. In fact, over the years all have typically been the first to step up and put their profits into all kinds of synergistic attempts that have been the very model of the kind of partnerships and mergers that Jeff endorses here. Now to be fair, they haven’t all worked, but they haven’t given us the death of local journalism that was forecast in the Times either.

    Steve Safran (The Duke of Digital Media) is absolutely right about the fact that there are television newsrooms that aren’t shining examples of innovation and experimentation, just like there are newspaper newsrooms that are struggling to make their way in the brave new media world. But I for one, wouldn’t automatically agree that television journalism is rarely “worth a damn.” Even the much celebrated leaders like Boston’s WCVB have had to adapt to changing audiences and business models.

    I also find it amazing that the siren call for re-regulating broadcast outlets is never matched with a call for imposing the same on cable networks (who rely on FCC-licensed satellite uplinks for their distribution, thus using the public airwaves to some extent) or the regulated “common carriers” who handle some of the “pipes” for the internet. Broadcasters are easy targets because they still command the largest audiences–though who knows for how much longer–and because that in the 1930s the phrase “operating in the public interest” came into the vernacular and has never been updated.

    Well the reality is that it won’t matter at all what the public interest is, if there is no business interest to help pay the bills. Good journalism is not a non-profit exercise. And has been proven over and over again, government regulation never translates to an influx of capital in a marketplace.

  • Kirk: The rationale for regulating broadcast is based as much on scarcity as it is on the notion that the airwaves are publicly owned. With cable, the scarcity rationale is much weaker, and, thus, so is the rationale for regulating it. Frankly, the “publicly owned” part has never struck me as very compelling. If newspapers are printed on paper that comes from forests that are publicly owned, should the government have the right to regulate the content? Obviously not.

  • Kirk Varner

    Dan, I think the scarcity argument has become another red herring. There is still only one cable operator in most communities and they completely control which channels you can or can’t access on your system. That doesn’t seem to be a problem until Mr. Safran and his fellow NE Patriots fans can’t see their team go for an undefeated season–because many cable operators don’t yet carry the NFL’s own network yet. Then of course we need congress to step in to pressure for the return of the game to it’s rightful place on no less than two “over the air” television networks.

    Yes I know, the satellite operators and now the telcos delivering IPTV have changed that paradigm too, but does anyone really believe that having the old rules limiting an operator to having no more than one AM, one FM and one TV station in a given market would bring back the “golden years” of local broadcast journalism? Maybe nobody remembers those years and just how little local broadcast journalism there actually was?

    Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely get why it would be a bad idea to just throw open the gates and allow anyone (other than Rupert Murdoch) to own as many of whatever media outlets they want, because that doesn’t work–but at the same time isn’t it really the market that is forcing Clear Channel to slim itself down, not some new round of government rulemaking?

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