In a City Journal article earlier this year, I wondered “how long some local papers have left when they are barred from restructuring their businesses or partnering with other local media operators to stem the bleeding and reinvent their business models.” I was responding to the Senate’s smack-down of a half-hearted reform effort that FCC chairman Kevin Martin pushed through in November 2007, which proposed relaxing the FCC’s newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule. That rule, unrevised since going into effect in 1975, prohibits a newspaper operator from also owning a radio or television station in the same media market. However, waivers were granted to grandfather in some combined newspaper and broadcast operations that had existed long before the ban took effect. Martin’s proposal was to simply tweak the rule to permit similar combinations in just the nation’s 20 largest media markets.
Martin’s limited liberalization proposal, however, led to howls of disapproval from FCC democrats like Michael Copps and many folks on both side of the aisle in Congress. Supposedly, this was nothing more than a “giveaway” to the newspaper industry, which critics said was doing just fine. It really makes you wonder if any of those critics even both reading the news about newspapers today.
As I have documented here on many occasions, as well as in my big Media Metrics report, the newspaper industry is in huge trouble with every financial variable of importance rapidly heading south. Alan Mutter does a good job here of summarizing “the secular forces dragging down newspapers: Declining readership, shrinking advertising, high fixed costs and growing online competition that makes it increasingly difficult to charge the premium ad rates that were possible prior to the Internet.” As a result of these forces, everyday brings another headline like this one today in the New York Times: “The Star-Ledger of Newark Plans 40% Cut,” or this one in the Wall Street Journal: “Some Newspapers Shed Unprofitable Readers.” The numbers are just miserable, and they just get worse and worse.
Now, you might say, “So what? That’s creative destruction at work.” Indeed it is, and it’s an entirely natural and healthy marketplace phenomenon. The problem, however, is that there’s still a lot of regulating going on. Specifically, papers remain bound by red tape in the form of artificial market ownership restrictions that disallow the creation of new business models that might save them what appears to be their possible extinction.
I am not at all confident that consolidation or creative ownership arrangements will actually throw them much of a lifeline — it’s probably too little, too late, now that so many readers and advertisers have flocked to the Net and other media platforms. Nonetheless, they should not be bound by archaic media ownership rules put on the books a quarter century ago in an era of less competition and consumer choice. Let papers restructure and compete. It may be their only chance at survival.
Update: Just a few minutes after posting this I came across this NYT article documenting the latest quarterly newspaper circulation numbers and how the numbers just keep getting worse. Sales in the spring and summer fell almost 5 percent from the previous year according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.