FCC oks media mergathon; this time it sticks?


Investment bankers set to help mass media become more massive

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday lifted the 32-year-old cross-ownership ban that had prevented one mass media chain from owning a newspaper and broadcast outlet in the same town. The agency had tried a similar move about five years ago that was eventually reversed by a court decision. Opponents of this green light for consolidation will no doubt try to reverse the decision through court or congressional action and they may succeed; at least I hope so as I do not believe bigger media firms are better for anyone, even the Big Media firms that fought to lift the ban.

But this time around my sense is that the courts and the Congress and even the country have changed. The issue of media consolidation appeals to that politically-active minority that realizes that civil discourse is slowly being smothered. But can they convince the judicial and/or legistative branches to reverse this FCC move given the greater awareness that traditional media are under pressure from Web media. Never mind that mass media have been losing audience for years and were formerly able to grow revenues only by charging more per eyeball or ear; and now newspapers and TV are rightly fearful that Internet advertising media, on the order of one-fifth to one-tenth the unit cost, are eating their lunch.

So the FCC has given mass media a deregulatory fix. These big old media firms can buy each other and bulk up to compete against the big new media brands — Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN — that account for the vast majority of Web 2.0 ad revenues. That’s our world of information — big dinosaurs versus big hungry mammals.

Pardon me if I don’t cheer for either combatant because both are killing journalism. Mass media are jettisoning journalism because it is costly and does not seem to help them compete. There’s an irony now in activisits trying to preserve the cross ownership ban. Activists used to complain that newspaper journalism was a collusion between fat local media monopolies and their fat unionized work forces. Yet now the activists want to preserve the mass media status quo! Perhaps it’s because they look at new media in horror, at least from a public policy or journalism point of view. The new media power have even less use for journalism than their mass media predecessors, both from a technological view (if you’re Google and you can scrape news headlines and put it on your news page, why pay to gather it?) and from a philosophical perspective because they can crowdsource or take advantage of free user-generated content. Have the new web powers like Google or Yahoo ever embraced citizen journalism, either as a phenomenon or a term? If so, I’ve overlooked it.

Truth is no one really likes or wants journalism. an observer to fairly and accurately bring laypeople into the know on the important issues of the day. Why would anyone in power wish to encourage a discipline that believes it is both necessary and desirable for outside observers, with no stake in events, to explain complex matters to ordinary people? The real surprise is that journalism has done as well as it has for as long as it has. And that gives me hope that while the current situation seems bleak to a (paid) journalist like me, the need for independent assessment is so clear, and the technology for acquiring and disseminating knowledge is so cheap and prevalant, that we the people will find ways to investigate and rule our world, and maybe even devise business models to support the telling of stories that the powerful would like to supress and to reward those of us who ride up on our high horses as messengers — hot, sweaty and begging to be shot.