Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder announcing her intentions to hold a hearing on the issue of newspaper consolidation in the San Francisco Bay area, citing anti-trust laws as a potential avenue to do something about this. The hearing would be by the Courts & Competition Policy Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, according to Pelosi’s letter.
While clearly there are serious issues engulfing the newspaper industry, in San Francisco and elsewhere, the problem isn’t one of anti-trust violations. Pelosi has made her feelings known. She would like a return to the Fairness Doctrine. This is a nose under the tent.
Yes, the industry is changing. It has been for years. But other than perhaps some limits on one company owning too many TV, radio and newspapers in a single market, the government really should have no role in the business of news.
The whole news paradigm is changing. We have public radio and TV, both on national and local levels. We have both print and online-only newspapers and magazines. Examples: Seattle Post-Intelligencer has just gone to strictly online; U.S. News & World Report has become online only except for once-a-month consumer oriented issues in print; The Christian Science Monitor became the first national newspaper to go exclusively online; and the nearly 200-year-old Ann Arbor (Michigan) News announced this week that it is going to become exclusively web based starting in July. Many other high profile newspapers have been struggling to stay afloat―in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even the New York Times has lost much of its stock value and has had to borrow money against its headquarters in New York.
The problem is that few papers have been able to successfully monetize the news on the Internet. That’s partly because advertisers aren’t satisfied with the results, and subscribers are generally reluctant when they have access to so much free material on the Internet.
The change in the news business is everywhere. We now have Propublica.com, which is 28 investigative reporters paid by the Sandlers of San Francisco, philanthropists who felt the newspapers weren’t doing enough of it on their own. They have done some great work on covering the TARP funds. The Drudge Report is still the largest by far of the news aggregators, which is another type of news source that didn’t used to exist. The Wall Street Journal is one of the only publications making money via subscribers. It is a unique brand that businessmen and stockholders the world over turn to and trust for its reliability on financial and political matters.
It’s true, and unfortunate, that many news organizations are run with the bottom line being the biggest factor to the owners. And it means that there are fewer bureaus, fewer foreign bureaus, and fewer reporters in the remaining bureaus. On the other hand we can read blogs and news sites from all over the world. There are plenty of people willing to keep providing news reports for free. It is up to us as individuals to sort out what is reliable and what isn’t. That cannot be a role for government bureaucrats or politicians.
We are going through a period comparable to changing from horse and buggy to cars. A lot of shake-up that is better left to market forces. Especially with something as sacred as news and its protector, the First Amendment. The government has no business picking winners and losers. If a government entity bails out the last remaining newspaper in a city, is that newspaper’s coverage of that entity tainted? It’s certainly suspect.
In some cities, college and even high school journalism departments have flip-cams and other high quality, low-cost video equipment and send students out to cover school board and city hall meetings. It’s obviously not as desirable as having professional journalists who have covered the beat for years, but it is an industry in flux, and often these students will do a better job than hardened reporters who have lost their passion.
One of the worst things that has happened to the newspaper industry is Craig’s List, which is where people place classified ads for little or nothing, and people go to those classified ads looking for anything from a job, to a prostitute to a used car.
Jack Shafer of Slate.com did a story back in 2006, citing a story from a Harvard Business School publication that traced the history of newspaper consolidation, and found that between 1953 and 1980, the number of family-owned newspapers went from 1,300 to 700, and that the factors included technology, labor unions, and tax codes.
The bottom line is that consolidation is part of the natural evolution of news. It means different things in different markets. This story from 2008 details the consolidation of several San Francisco Bay area publications that more or less went in together to save costs, but have still had to let many people go.
But AIM Editor Cliff Kincaid, in the book that he co-authored, The Death of Talk Radio?, and I have been warning for years that what Speaker Pelosi―and Senators John Kerry, Dick Durbin and others want is a return to the Fairness Doctrine. Our associate Bethany Stotts also wrote an excellent piece describing how the current plan by President Obama is to use localism or diversity of ownership as a ruse to accomplish the same goal. Republican Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana has gathered quotes on his website from a number of leading Democrats who have openly advocated for a return to the Fairness Doctrine.
Speaker Pelosi is determined to try to regulate what news we can read, watch and listen to. It would make it much easier for the Democrats to get their agenda enacted. This latest attempt, using anti-trust laws, should certainly fail.