Media Columnist: Deregulation Needed For Journalism's Survival

January 1st, 2009 10:19 PM

Ever since the financial services industry totally melted down in September, anti-free market media have pointed an accusatory finger at deregulation as the primary cause of bank, brokerage firm, and insurance company failures.

Yet, as press outlets across the fruited plain deal with declining revenues and layoffs, some believe a looser anti-trust environment could be the solution.

Even more delicious, one such advocate, Variety's Brian Lowry, used to be a deregulation opponent as evident in his Wednesday column

If it takes a big man to admit he was wrong, said man needn't be quite so magnanimous to concede that changing circumstances have altered his outlook.

The perils of media consolidation have been a longstanding concern. Even during a stint working for Tribune Co. as they futilely attempted to squeeze synergies out of TV-print combinations, I banged the drum against allowing TV, radio stations and newspapers coagulate in too few hands, fearing ethical abuses or the nagging appearance of them, as well as the loss of independent voices to watchdog government and the media itself.

Today, though, amid daily waves of depressing economic news, conflicted voices sound preferable to neutered or, worse, deceased ones.

Interesting how the risk of deteriorating personal finances can impact one's view of the world, dontcha think?

Without some kind of action, more broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are going to die off. Local news coverage -- the essence of public service, however quaint and dated that might sound -- has already been seriously compromised, as TV and print cut back on newsgathering resources. [...]

[T]he bottom line is that unless newspapers and smaller-market stations become not-for-profit ventures (and based on recent cuts at National Public Radio, even that offers no assurance of success), something's got to give -- beginning, perhaps, with restrictions that prevent enterprises from pooling resources in a way that might help them survive.

Are you getting this? But there's more:

Joel Brinkley, a Stanford journalism professor, has proposed an antitrust exemption that would assist newspapers in charging for online content, addressing the conundrum of Web consumption failing to translate into revenue.

Like greater consolidation, that's an imperfect solution, and letting one or two owners monopolize markets is equally thorny. Still, it's increasingly clear these wounds (self-inflicted or otherwise) won't heal themselves -- and that easing ownership constraints is a more attractive alternative than watching central providers of information slowly drown, while standing on principle instead of tossing them a lifeline.

Fascinating, especially how this goes counter to the typical liberal journalist's view of the how the free market needs to be contrained when it comes to his or her industry.

Readers are reminded of a June 2007 report by the Clinton front-group Center for American Progress which recommended much stronger regulations in order to wrest radio from conservative talkers:

  • Restore local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations.
  • Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing.
  • Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting.

This raises some interesting questions:

  • If the poor economy and current state of the news media industry warrants looser regulations, will liberal advocates like CAP and support such?
  • How does this impact the Democrat desire to re-enact the Fairness Doctine? Might this have to be postponed in order to save an already struggling industry?
Stay tuned.