Losing Our Voices
Dereg makes for fewer owners—and fewer journalists
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/8/2003 8:00:00 PM
I hate to recall the old days because I don't want to admit I've been doing this long enough that I have war stories just like the all the gray-haired guys I listened to when I was younger.
But I'll tell you at least one here. I started in journalism when a reporter's loyalty was to the institution named right there on the front page—in my case, The Dayton Journal Herald, owned by Cox Newspapers. As nice as the people were, I wouldn't lift a finger for The Dayton Daily News, also owned by Cox Newspapers. I wouldn't help Dayton's WHIO-AM-FM or -TV, owned by Cox Communications. (Dayton's crossownership was grandfathered.)
Back then, when I was a new TV critic, WHIO-TV's news director and I had a mutual and deep loathing for each other's point of view, and he once implied, after someone smashed a cream pie into the face of one of his reporters doing a live shot, that I had had a role in that incident. "Interfering with a broadcast is a federal crime, you know," he told me, as if his voice was balled up into a fist. We certainly weren't sharing information.
I don't think the business is like that anymore.
In the cross-owned, multi-purposed, multi-platformed, strategic-partnered news world that will only get more homogenized in the future, journalists won't work for a television station that has its own proud history, distinct identity and tradition. They'll work for a company that owns 52 "products," many of them in the same city.
The reporters that, in the old days, once stood beside me at a press
conference trying to beat me will now be ... me, because I'll be reporting for three or four or five outlets that used to try to beat each other to get the best story.
In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Ted Turner, the guy everybody thinks is nuts, became the first person to write something I've been thinking for a while. With the new ownership rules and the easing of the crossownership rules that once prevented a newspaper from owning a TV or radio station in town, there will simply be fewer reporters.
Broadcasters like to say the newspaper's vast "resources" (its reporters) will help improve the newscast. (That's because broadcasters historically have understaffed their newsrooms and, to be perfectly uncharitable, cribbed a lot of their news from the city daily.)
It's probably true. Crossownership will help broadcasters—at the expense of the paper. And here, we're no longer talking theory. If you accept the idea that having more reporters (resources) creates a better product, then "sharing" those resources makes the paper or the newscast worse.
As Turner points out, "under the new rules, there will be more consolidation and more news sharing. That means laying off reporters or, in other words, downsizing the workforce that helps us see our problems and make us think about solutions."
The FCC has had an "eight-voice test," but then it was counting corporations as voices. Think another way: about human voices. What has really been lost in the deregulatory onslaught at the FCC are those individuals who, through consolidation, just won't be in the business for much longer. Their voices will be lost, whether it's eight or 80 of them.
I think I'm supposed to say, "Well, that's business." And it is. But, for another lapse into what-used-to-be, it used to be that the news business wasn't only about the bottom line. You can make a case that some of the best news organizations—CBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times—got far richer because they maintained their standards than they would have had they abandoned them. But now that the getting is so good, there will be few media companies that won't try to find some way to, how do they say it, create some efficiencies.
Last week's 3-2 decision by the FCC to allow further consolidation won't suddenly mean that all stations will be weakened or all voices will be humming the same tune in a week or a month. But many will change, and it won't be for the better. Consumers won't notice because only gradually will the bar of what's acceptable drop lower.
When we look back in a little while, deregulation will be a great success, you'll see. And if it isn't, there won't be many voices left to tell you. That's the voice test the nation should worry about.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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