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The Case for Relaxing Cross-Ownership Laws

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Owen Youngman

Even before I left the Chicago Tribune– beneficiary of a “grandfather” clause that allowed its parent company to own a newspaper, a radio station and a television station in the nation’s #3 market – I had seen that the cross-ownership ban was an artifact of an era of perceived scarcity of access to information for large swaths of the public and needed to fall in other markets, too.

It’s still true that TV stations, radio stations and daily newspapers aggregate larger audiences within most of the top 20 markets than do other information sources that seek to compete directly with them. But it’s also true that those audiences are much smaller than before cable TV and the Web increased consumer choice so dramatically, making additional voices and outlets available (if not always top of mind) to the citizenry. Freedom of the press can now belong not only to the person who runs a printing press installation, but to the person who’s running WordPress.

Nevertheless, if either of the preceding data points were the only factor in relaxing or retaining the ban, the issue would have been settled long ago through regulation or legislation.

The “public interest” question is the reason the ban has persisted. Its long life is emblematic of the lousy job that media companies have done in demonstrating that they can, and do, act in the public interest as much or more as they do in their own.

What local media companies lack, restricted in the number of channels and platforms they can own, is scale — the scale that seems like a right divinely granted to companies that grew up around technology. (In fact, in Chicago, the argument can easily be made that the divestiture of the Sun-Times that was forced on Rupert Murdoch in 1986 when he bought a TV station ultimately harmed both competition and the public interest.) The public does have an interest in these companies’ preservation — particularly in aspects of the information business, such as electoral democracy and government, where geography still matters more than audience demographics and purchasing power.

Today, sitting at a university instead of inside a media company, I still argue in favor of an end to the restriction, but not because of changes in ownership or in audience size. Instead I think that people — call them citizens, voters, consumers, whatever you like — today are utterly unlikely to be swayed by even constantly reiterated messages across multiple “major media.” Instead, they have transferred whatever faith they used to put into media institutions to something else: the technological tools that they use to bounce from information source to information source, and the companies that have made this so easy. (Siva Vaidhyanathan calls this version of faith “techno-fundamentalism” and warns of its dangers in his book “The Googlization of Everything.”)

What I’m saying is that no media company is likely, ever again, to have more mindshare or influence than does Apple or Google or Facebook, none of which has any particular civic purpose at its core. While an end to the ban will not guarantee that media owners keep their communities’ interests front and center, removing the restriction is a worthwhile way to find out if whether a revised business and economic model can allow them a little more headroom to do so.


Owen Youngman was appointed to the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Medill in January, 2009, after a 37-year career at the Chicago Tribune focused on new product development, innovation and interactive media. He is also the associate director of the Northwestern Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism, a collaboration between Medill and the McCormick School of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering that includes the Knight News Innovation Laboratory.

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  • DAJ

    There is no reason to believe that media consolidation will allow media to provide better community coverage. One of my relatives works at a local TV news station that has suffered severely from the philosophy of its corporate owners. In their view, the same standardized approach to news, dominated by sensationalism, can be applied to any TV market in the country. On-air personnel are treated as interchangeable parts. Coverage of local sports, community events, and politics other than elections is virtually gone, replaced by car crashes, fires, and other small disasters that are unimportant to the community at large. The station’s competitors, run by other media conglomerates, are somewhat less soulless, but all are affected by the ruthless corporate demand for lower expenditures—meaning fewer employees and less initiative.

    The argument about the diversity of sources in the Internet age has merit, but it is a gross exaggeration to say that people are “utterly unlikely to be swayed by constantly repeated messages across multiple ‘major media’.” Countless people across the country are thoroughly convinced that President Obama is some outlandish socialist, whether they hear it from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News or Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. The rise of user-generated news sources has brought much more information to light, but it’s not just good information. There’s no guarantee that the blogger who exposes a local politician’s corruption will get more Web traffic than the blogger who, fancying himself a journalist, constructs an elaborate aliens-and-stargates conspiracy theory around some shlub from Tennessee who calls himself Rockefeller and claims to be Marduk Ra and Lucifer Reborn. That’s an extreme (but real) example, but the point is that user-generated content has few filters to distinguish good information from bad. The filters in corporate media, in contrast, are as strong as ever but are increasingly skewed less toward what’s useful for the public and more toward what serves the corporate agenda. There has to be a way to restore that balance, and I see no reason to believe that allowing corporations more free rein will do that.

  • VagaBond61

    There are even more people convinced that Obama is the Greatest thing since corn flakes. How about some objectivity for a change, rather than all the feel good BS and literaly no coverage of the real truth behind anything out of the mans mouth. After watching the last two elections I have lost ALL faith in mainstrem media.