New York Times media business reporter Richard Siklos penned an excellent column yesterday entitled "In a Blurry World, Ownership Is Yesterday's News." "It is hard to find any public policy question that feels less relevant by the minute than whether one person or company should be permitted to own television stations and newspapers in the same market," he argued.
That's because, as I pointed out in my book on media ownership last year, Media Myths: Making the Debate over Media Ownership, there has been an explosion of media competition and diversity that makes this entire debate seem somewhat silly and even bizarre at times. Critics want us to believe that a handful of puppet-masters in New York or Hollywood are pulling all the strings and force-feeding us propaganda. It's all a bunch of hooey. And even the traditional media sectors where some of the media "barons" have more control of ownership, it really doesn't amount to a hill of beans. As Siklos points out:
"[W]hat does it say about the appeal of cross-ownership that The [New York] Post has lost money since the News Corporation's chairman, Rupert Murdoch, acquired it for the second time, in 1993, and that Mr. Murdoch, whose roots are in ink and paper, has otherwise quit the newspaper business in the United States in favor of television, cable channels and the Internet?"
What it tells us is that the media market is far more dynamic and cut-throat competitive than the media critics give it credit for. That's especially the case in the old print media world. As Mr. Siklos notes: "The daily newspaper business in particular has been suffering from what management consultants politely call value destruction: even though they may reach more readers via the Web, their business model is being undermined and their profit is flat or declining." Stated more bluntly, they are hemorrhaging customers and advertisers. They're losing eyeballs to alternative media operators and technologies will no end in sight to the migration.
As Siklos points out, therefore, old media operators are petitioning for relief because:
"the days when broadcast TV and newspapers wholly dominated their markets are dimming. Publishers and broadcasters need scale to compete effectively in an era when cable, digitization and the Internet have vastly increased the number of sources of news and information in a market." ..
"But the most important reason that cross-ownership rules no longer make sense is this: the distinctions between print and television are starting to blur in a digital world. Video on the Web is the biggest thing since turkey and gravy. Companies like Tribune have argued that their TV expertise will increasingly lead to more attractive and useful Web sites incorporating video clips alongside articles, and vice versa."
This last point is important for another reason. If government can continue to regulate ownership structures in an age of media abundance and convergence it means that policymakers will eventually look to regulate new media platforms and technologies like satellite and Internet-based media services. As I pointed out in the conclusion of my book, that would be a disaster, especially from a First Amendment perspective, because:
"In such an age of abundance and hyper-choice, the question of who owns what or how much they own is utterly irrelevant. No matter how large any given media outlet is today, it is ultimately just one of thousands of sources of news, information and entertainment that we have at our collective disposal.... But if we allow the old analog media ownership controls to live on, at some point they will start to spill over into the digital realm and impact those bits too. If we as a society care about freedom, and freedom of information in particular, we must end all media ownership controls before technological and market convergence create regulatory convergence as well."