Senate Committee Members Say Looser Media Ownership Rules Will Not Solve Newspapers' Woes

Kerry says technology, new media economics have changed model
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The heads of the Senate Commerce Committee and Communications Subcommittee made it clear that newspapers should not be looking for looser media ownership rules as a solution to their economic woes.

In advance of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the future of journalism, Commerce Committee Chairman Senator John Kerry (D-MA) minced no words, saying newspapers were fooling themselves if they believed that relaxing ownership rules would save them.

"Now, as many in this room will remember," he wrote, "I have frequently spoken out against relaxing media ownership rules, such as the cross media ownership rule, which bans a media company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market. Some may even look at the current set of circumstances and think that further relaxing this rule is one step that could be taken to save the old model. But when you look at how fast technology is moving-how the economics of news delivery really work in an age where everything you read in ink can be found on the web faster and cheaper and further from where it is printed-well, you are whistling past the graveyard if you think that relaxing cross ownership rules will save newspapers.

Adding his voice was Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA), chairman of the full committee, seconding that sentiment, if somewhat more obliquely. "From the very beginning our approach to media policy has been informed by a set of core values-encouraging competition, ensuring a diversity of voices, and fostering localism," he said. "Despite the changes all around us, I believe we should strive to make sure that these values continue to inspire our media policy in the digital age."

The FCC said this week that it is still deciding whether to further modify the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban, which it loosened in December 2007, but it appears as likely to tighten it as to allow more such combos.

During the hearing, David Simon, former reporter with The Baltimore Sun and writer/executive producer/creator of HBO series, The Wire (http://www.hbo.com/thewire/cast/crew/david_simon.shtml), spoke eloquently, if disturbingly, about what he saw as the self-inflicted wounds of the newspaper industry.

"My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries." But he is no fan of the new media that are attempting to fill the news gap, or at least the way it is currently constituted.

"[To] read the claims that some new media voices are already making, you would think they need only to bulldoze the carcasses of moribund newspapers aside and begin typing....their ignorance is as embarrassing as it is seemingly sincere. Indeed, the very phrase 'citizen journalist' strikes my ear as Orwellian....{A] neighbor with a garden hose and good intentions is not a citizen firefighter. To say so is a heedless insult to trained firefighters."

Simon said that he was not making a luddite argument against the Internet, but said that high-end journalism was a profession, that bloggers were not constantly nurturing sources or hanging out where police officers gather or doing the other things that require a daily, full-time commitment by trained beat reporters.

Simon did support some relaxing of rules, however, urging Congress to relax anti-trust provisions to allow big papers like the Washington Post, New York Times and others to get together to discuss copyright issues regarding aggregators and figure out how to transition to a paid model online, which he said was crucial to their survival.

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