Acting FCC Chairman: "Mini-Papers" No Way to Success

Count acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps among those who believe the current strategy of decimating staffs at newspapers is the wrong way to deal with the economic downturn, especially since most are still making money.  

"I am seriously worried about the decline of broadcast journalism and newspaper journalism," Copps testified before the House Appropriations Committee's Financial Services Subcommittee this past Wednesday. "I'm not convinced that shrinking these newspapers into little mini-papers is necessarily the way to success. And I'm even less sure that .

From Michael Copps' April 29 testimony:

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First of all, there's no question that newspapers are facing problems right now. I don't think we have a completely accurate handle on how many are making money and how many aren't.

I've read two long, long pieces in the New York Times in the last few weeks, which just -- way, tucked away in the print, there was a little sentence in each one that said, "Of course, most newspapers in the United States are still making money." We don't hear that very often. It's mostly that most of them are going under.

And I'm not trying to downgrade the pressures that they're under, because -- because I understand that.

I think to some extent some of the consolidation that we underwent created some of these problems. I was not a fan of the Tribune takeover, and I warned at the time that amassing that kind of -- of a debt could be inimical to the future well being of that concern. And that's -- that's come to pass.

Certainly, the rise of the Internet has challenged them. And maybe some of their problems were self-created by just saying, you know, we'll put it all up free on the Internet and all that.

This is beyond my purview. And the health of the newspapers is beyond my purview as chairman as the Federal Communications Commission. But where it does come into play is looking at some of the newspaper-broadcast connections. And increasingly, as we see newspaper and broadcast come under the same management, maybe there are some efficiencies in that.

And I look at -- I look at that generally with some level of skepticism, because when you close a newsroom, you have -- you have lost another source of independent voice and independent news and independent judgment in a community.

that serves the public interest."

Copps, who was appointed to the temporary post by Barack Obama in January, also weighed in on Sam Zell's debt-laden acquisition of of Sun-Sentinel parent Tribune Co., saying he never thought it was a good idea. 

Tribune is, of course, leading the way with the "mini-paper" strategy, laying off as much as 50 percent of staff at some of its newspapers. The Sun-Sentinel will be at about half of its peak staffing after the 30 additional layoffs that will be announced later this month

Copps blamed former FCC Chairman Michael Powell for paving the way for big mergers that have proven disastrous (McClatchy, anyone?) and said he suspects more efforts at consolidation will come when the economy begins to recover.

"What really galled me or didn't appeal to me when Michael Powell tried to change the rules on ownership was he was kind of flashing an always-on green light, you know, you can always come to the FCC, and we'll approve a merger," Copps testified. 

He also asked some more general, rather existential questions about journalism itself during the hearing.

"How do you make sure that there is news -- real, honest-to-God news -- on that internet, that there's investigative journalism, that there's the resources to do it?" he asked. "How do you make sure that the American people have the breadth and depth of information in their civic dialogue to make intelligent decisions for the future of their country? And we haven't really stepped up to that."

I'm a believer that the market will ultimately provide it in some form, but as Copps himself said at one point during the hearing, "This is dialogue we need to have."

A long excerpt from Copps' testimony:

So -- and I'm -- I'm afraid -- and everybody's -- I read an article yesterday said, "well, obviously there's not much in the way of acquisitions and things going on right now."

I'm not so sure that when the economy begins to turn around that that situation will persist. And I think you'll probably see more people wanting to consolidate.

And, again, I think you have to look at each case on an individual basis. What really galled me or didn't appeal to me when Michael Powell tried to change the -- the rules on ownership was he was kind of flashing an always on green light, you know, you can always come to the FCC, and we'll approve a merger.

I have never opposed, and never said that I opposed, all mergers. And I'm always willing to look in an individual market. If a duopoly or some kind of a different cross-media takeover means the difference between a station going dark or staying on the air, I'm willing to look at that. And I think we should look in that.

But let's do it, again, with -- with some attention to the details, look at the needs of a particular market, rather than just -- rather than just flashing that always on green light.

The fact is that most people still get their news and information from television and from the newspaper. The latest figures I saw would say probably two-thirds, you know, in spite of the fact that the Internet is becoming more and more popular. And I understand that.

But that's -- it's so important, and I am -- I am seriously worried about the decline of broadcast journalism and newspaper journalism. I'm not convinced that shrinking these newspapers into little mini-papers is necessarily the way to success. And I'm even less sure that that serves the public interest.

So this is a dialogue we need to have. I know there are some people -- I was up in New York City a couple of weeks ago. A group is convening up there through one of the universities and including the private sector to really take a close look at this.

I think I applaud Congress taking a close look at it. And you're raising the question. And I think there's going to be a hearing on the Senate side on the future of journalism, too.

And those are dialogues that we really need to be having because that's what the public interest is all about. And if we don't have a viable system of journalism and newspapers and take advantage of all the technologies we have to increase the civic dialogue, then we are losing a wonderful opportunity to help our country progress.

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