Documenting The Slow Implosion of Local Media — Some Tips and Tricks

A company that owns two TV stations in Central Illinois, Nexstar, last week shut down the news operations for two stations in Billings, MT it’s acquiring, before the ink on the paperwork was even dry.

I try to keep tabs on what our local media owners are doing all over the country, because it’s generally a good indicator of what will probably go down in our area soon. Media companies often test new corporate policies in small markets to gauge reaction and fallout before they roll them out across the board. By the time a company decides to make it general corporate policy, it’s too late for most local communities to do anything substantive.

I also try to share that information. In this case I’ve written up a fuller story about Nexstar and our local TV news situation for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center website.

I encourage everybody to do their own bit of research on their local media, too. The Internet has made it much easier to find news in local papers from across the country, in addition to finding out the dirt of who owns your local media.

The first step is to use a tool like the Center for Public Integrity’s “Well Connected” database to see who your local media owners are. Sometimes they’ll use barely hidden holding company names like “Nexstar Broadcasting of Illinois” rather than the full corporate name. Don’t be fooled, they’re all the same company. But sometimes they also use misleadingly named holding companies like “URBANA-CHAMPAIGN BROADCASTING PARTNERS.” Finding out who’s really behind them is a little harder, but can often just be done with a Google search.

Once you’ve figured out who owns what, dig for some dirt. If you have access to Lexis-Nexis, which is now pretty widely available at many colleges and universities, then do a search for the company name in the “Broadcasting Industry” subject area in the Business News section. That’s the method that I find most fruitful.

If you don’t have Lexis-Nexis, then you might have to work a little harder. A lof of the articles I find are out of the industry journal Broadcasting & Cable, which used to post articles for free on line, but stopped this year. But, luckily, this journal is widely available in most college and university libraries, and in many public libraries.

Even though you have to pay to read the articles on-line, you can still use the search function on the Broadcasting & Cable webpage to find references for the articles you’re looking for, and then go find them in the print version in your local library.

A quick aside — even if you’re not a student or staff member at a college or university, you can probably still get at least limited access to the stacks, and maybe even to on-line databases. If it’s a community college or state university, they’re probably required to give all local residents access (since it’s partially paid for by your tax dollars), even if they don’t advertise it widely. Ask your friendly librarian, s/he’ll be glad to give you the skinny.

Yahoo News and Google News are also both good ways to quickly search out major and local news sources from all over. The only caveat is that different sources treat their archives differently. So while an older article from a small local paper might come up on a search, it might not be available on the web — but, again, you can use that citation to find the article in a library.

It’s also good to know that there are other folks also searching out media news. In the case of Nextar’s Billings MT stations, I got the tip from the Benton Foundation’s Communications-Related Headlines service. It used to be just a daily-email newsletter, but now it’s also a blog. Although it’s only a few stories a day, Benton’s focus is on communications, democracy and the public interest, so their articles tend to be pretty relevent to my interests.

A couple of other blog-like sites I use are I Want Media and Romenesko’s Media Page. Both tend to focus more on the media industry and journalism, and are also more “insider” in their outlook. Nevertheless, the guys who run these sites seem to have an exhaustive list of bookmarks and find lots of good stuff every day. I Want Media also has a daily e-mail newsletter that I subscribe to.

Please, take these tips and tools and go forth and investigate. Put your local media owners under the lens, because they reticent to do it to each other, and absolutely unwilling to reveal this information about themselves. Post your findings to your local Indymedia website, your own blog, write it in a letter to the editor, or make your own newsletter or zine. Serve notice to media owners that we’re watching them.

If you have other tips or tools for digging up the dirt, please share them with me by e-mail, or comment to this post.






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