Can Cross-Ownership Help Preserve Local, Independent Journalism in the Digital Age?

by Marcella Gadson and Kenneth Mallory on September 18, 2013

Newspapers Investigative JournalismNewspapers remain a vital source of information for millions of Americans.  Historically, newspapers have spearheaded investigative journalism, shedding light on the darkest corners of American society and forcing it to change for the better.  Unfortunately, as we progress deeper into the Digital Age, newspapers are foundering, and the lens that helped us see a clearer picture of the state of our nation is fading.  With the FCC reopening its media cross-ownership proceeding, we need to take into account what’s at stake when we lose local independent journalism and how changing the cross-ownership rules could, in some circumstances, preserve it.

Why Are Newspapers So Important?

Newspapers’ roles in shaping our society through investigative journalism date back to the 1800s.  An 1872 article, for example, investigated the wrongful incarceration of mentally healthy people into insane asylums, while an 1890 article investigated the squalor of immigrant slums in major cities.  Both articles, published in the New York Tribune, led to sweeping changes in how institutions and municipalities were run.

The latter article, titled “How the Other Half Lives,” led to the destruction of New York City’s slums and sweatshops, as well as the rebuilding and reformation of schools.  The article also paved the way for “muckraking” journalism, in which reporters highlighted political and economic corruption and social hardships brought on by the transition to the Industrial Age. Ironically, as we transition to the Digital Age, we are seeing a sharp decrease in investigative journalism due to the downsizing of newspapers and the consequent loss of the kind of in-depth, investigative journalism that led social justice reforms.

Although muckraking journalism ended around the time of the First World War, it still exists today in the form of investigative reporting.  In 1973, for example, two journalists for The Washington Post famously exposed the Watergate scandal, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  In its 1988 “The Color of Money” investigation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shed light on the racial discrimination of mortgage lenders in middle-class neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining.

Small Newspapers; Big Voices

Investigative reporting does not stop at the national level. Local journalists have historically covered issues in state government, municipal government, elections, crime/criminal justice, health, and education, exposing fraud and corruption and influencing local officials to take active steps to improve their communities.  Without these voices, often called “The Fourth Estate” for their watchdog role likened to an unofficial fourth branch of the government, there is much more room for corruption on state and municipal levels.  According to the FCC’s “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in the Broadband Age” report, “The shrinking coverage of municipal government around the country raises the risk of corruption and wasted taxpayer dollars.”

There is concern that small towns are influenced by biased coverage of news and local events when local media outlets are cross-owned, but the benefits to our society brought about by reputable newspaper outlets and the hard, investigative journalism they provide could outweigh such concerns in many circumstances.

Investigative Journalism: A Dying Watchdog

Broadband and Social Justice recently reported on the steady decline in the number of journalists employed by daily newspaper newsrooms, thereby decreasing the resources available for investigative journalism.  According to the Society of American News Editors, the number has dropped by 28 percent from 2000 to 2012.  Similarly, the number of members in Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a national nonprofit aimed at improving the quality of investigative journalism, declined by 25 percent from 2003 to 2010.

However, newspapers realize just how valuable these lost journalists are.  According to the FCC’s report, “Many editors consider their local beat reporters indispensable: those who cover schools and city councils, police and courts, suburban developments and urban neighborhoods, local elections and statehouses, for instance, are thought to provide information that is crucial to the functioning of the community – and even democracy itself.”

Unfortunately, as local newspapers continue to scale down they are forced to shrink their staffs, resulting in less feet on the ground to cover these vital issues.  This means that local investigative reporting, too, has suffered.

In 2008 and 2012, for example, there were widespread voter suppression efforts that were fraught with voter intimidation and fraud.  When local newspapers did not pick up these stories, bloggers did – but without the backing of an institution or the use of the journalistic “two-source rule,” their reports garnered little to no national attention, and the perpetrators of these unlawful tactics went unpunished.  As a result of the Supreme Court’s voting rights decision this summer, it is likely that such occurrences will become more rampant in the future, with few voices to bring them to the public eye.

Could the Relaxation of Cross-Ownership Rules Help Preserve Independent Journalism?

Several organizations have suggested that certain changes to the FCC’s structural ownership rules could help preserve local, independent journalism.

Specifically, some organizations have held that relaxation of the newspaper-broadcast station cross-ownership rule could create synergies that would allow broadcast stations and newspapers to share resources and news coverage.

In its comments in the recent media ownership proceeding, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) supported the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s study on the impact of cross-ownership rules on broadcast stations that are owned by women and minorities, which found that “cross-media interests’ impact on minority and women broadcast ownership is not sufficiently material to be a material justification for tightening or retaining the [FCC’s cross-ownership] rules.”

The NAA also cited FCC-commissioned research, which has “demonstrated that on average, a cross-owned television station produces nearly 50 percent more local news, airs 30 percent more coverage of state and local political candidates, and devotes 40 percent more time to candidates’ speeches.”

Furthermore, according to an FCC-funded study, “It seems possible that allowing mergers between newspapers and television stations could lead to substantial economies of scope and may improve product offerings by enabling cross-media promotions and integrated delivery. Many newspapers now offer some video content online, and many television stations’ websites provide large repositories of text news stories.”

Although MMTC has long championed the cross-ownership rules as a means of ensuring that the diversity of viewpoints and ideas are available to the public, it has had to step back and realize that as time passes and technology changes, so, too, must be our willingness to reevaluate long-held beliefs.  As a technology-driven society, we must be open to exploring the possibility that changes in circumstances can make almost any position on an issue less absolute.

As the FCC looks to implement rules that reflect the realities of our new communications industry, it should consider all viable solutions to assist newspapers and ensure that newspaper journalism continues to serve democracy by providing diverse and locally tailored content and information to all communities.

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