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Friday, November 6, 2009

Paralysis by Analysis -- The FCC's Failure to Respond to the Death Throes of Journalism
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At the final FCC "Media Ownership Workshop" this week the question was asked whether the current "difficulties" that broadcast stations and newspapers are having are in fact the sign of an industry in crises or whether this is just part of some cyclical downturn. Please.

The regulators at the FCC have their claws deep in the flesh of broadcast licensees (and derivatively newspaper owners), and it is plain that they are scrambling for any excuse to keep them there. Meanwhile, both of these Industries, which have long been the platform for some of the best journalism ever produced, slowly bleed to death.

Just this week, by way of example, the local paper in Mesa, Arizona, announced that it will shutter its doors permanently at the end of this year. The "East Valley Tribune," which won a Pulitzer Prize only a few months back for its investigative journalism, is owned by Freedom Communications -- itself in bankruptcy. Freedom apparently tried to sell the Tribune, but received no serious offers. Cyclical downturn indeed.

Gilbert, Arizona, Vice Mayor Linda Abbott "hit the nail with her head," as one of my law professors used to say: "Any time there is a newspaper that is extinguished, that is something that is a sadness for all of us. It is imperative that you have the press as the guard for our citizenry, and with the closing of the Tribune, that's one less critical oversight on public policy."

Meanwhile, the principal daily paper in San Francisco announced that it will begin printing on high-quality glossy paper. The change is a dramatic attempt to somehow slow the evaporation of its readership. Remarkaly, the "Chron" (as it is known to those few left who still read it) witnessed a 26 percent decline in circulation in the April to September reporting period. Does that sound like a cyclical bump in the road to anyone?

I feel like I am beating the proverbial dead horse, but newspaper offices may well end up being the ghost towns left by our generation. Industry-wide, newspaper advertising sales declined by almost 30 percent in the first quarter of 2009. This follows similar, though less dramatic, drops in each of the last several years. Can we finally say it? The emperor has no clothes; the business model has collapsed. Sadly, broadcast newsrooms may not be far behind.

And what do our intrepid leaders in Washington do while Rome burns? To call it fiddling would be charitable - fiddling at least would not be affirmatively deleterious to these businesses. Instead, the powers that be in Washington have under consideration a seemingly endless list of new regulatory obligations and burdens with which they would like to saddle broadcast licensees. And when these Industries ask for some relief from ridiculous, outdated restrictions on how they may organize themselves and who may own these properties, the FCC twiddles its fingers. Perhaps it will only be when the wise men and women making communications policy in Washington are left standing amongst the ruins of once important journalistic media that they will appreciate their folly.

posted by W. Kenneth Ferree @ 10:22 AM | Mass Media , Media Regulation , The FCC

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