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Too Big To Be Too Good

Guest Commentary 10/10/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Excerpted from recent testimony to the Senate

Commerce Committee by Geneva Overholser, a University of Missouri professor and former editor of the
Des Moines Register, opposing further media consolidation:

As longtime editor Harold Evans put it, media companies are not having trouble staying in business. They are having trouble staying in journalism. The FCC has it in its hands to make matters worse by enabling media owners to take their companies still further from the concerns and needs of local citizens.

I am here to speak about newspapers, whose decline in importance is greatly
overstated. Newspapers continue to be important, first, in numbers of readers. On any given Super Bowl Sunday, more Americans read their Sunday paper than watch the game. I hear little talk of football's demise. A Consumers Union study this year found that Americans rely on newspapers much more than on other media for local news and information. Newspapers influence other media because of the size of their newsgathering resources.

Yet newspapers are undergoing great strains due to the pressure of maintaining high profit margins. As one observer has said, being a cash cow is
a strategy. Not only do we see lower-quality news, but we see companies unwilling to serve customers in whom advertisers have no interest. The FCC is in a position to keep this situation from worsening. The companies that own newspapers (and often other media, of course) do not need our assistance to further increase the returns while reducing the number of newsrooms and newsgatherers.

Yet this is precisely what happens with greater consolidation.

Let me say a word here about this gift of synergy that we will supposedly derive from so-called convergence of media. Convergence is likely to be good for media business, but it is almost sure to be bad for journalism.

Far from increasing the amount or quality of the newsgathering, convergence provides additional means of distribution. Consider Reporter A, who spends a given amount of time reporting and a given amount of time putting it together for his newspaper. Now he is asked to disseminate the same report on radio, TV and the Internet. How much time does each new method of delivery require from him? Even if it's only half an hour, that's an hour and a half less time each day spent on reporting. The report on the State of the News Media 2004 noted, "Much of the new investment in journalism today—much of the information revolution generally—is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it."

Every time [a newspaper] is combined with a local television station, there is at the least one less TV reporter who might actually spy a story the paper did not. And when the newspaper, broadcast outlets and Web all join into one report, what values are likely to prevail? As Robert Haiman of the Poynter Institute put it, "There is going to be a tremendous clash of values: the journalism values of newspapers, the entertainment values of television and the no-holds-barred, raw, unedited, anarchic values of the Internet." Let's guess how likely it is that the values of journalism will win.

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