Who Owns Our Local Media and What Do The Want To Do With It?

Who Owns Our Local Media and What Do The Want To Do With It?
By Paul Riismandel

Originally appeared in the public i, Feb. 2003

When the C-U Cityview shut down after the New Year, it did so with little fanfare and no warning. The last issue made no mention of the fact that it was indeed the last one. Local media like the News-Gazette, WILL-AM and WCIA-TV covered the closing with varying degrees of detail. But now, several weeks later, it’s old news (except in the public i).

For many people the closing of the Cityview was their first realization that the paper wasn’t locally owned, and, in fact, hadn’t been locally owned for years. The idea that a local alternative weekly that was so steeped in the local scene would actually be held by a corporation hundreds of miles away seems so counterintuitive.

Unfortunately, in our local mass media this state of affairs is more often the rule, not the exception.

It’s reasonable to ask why this is important — why should we worry about who owns our local media outlets? For instance, on the surface ownership didn’t seem to make a difference in the content of the C-U Cityview. In fact, one could argue that the overall quality of the paper improved under the ownership of Saga Communications.

But then the Cityview closed, with no warning, and no input from the community. The readers were given no indication that the paper might be in trouble, and certainly not given an opportunity to keep it alive.

Even though the Cityview’s owner, Saga Communications, also owns three radio stations in the area (WKIO 90.5 FM, WLRW 94.5 FM and WIXY 100.3 FM), it doesn’t seem as though the company otherwise has many ties or responsibility to the community. The question is as simple as: who do you call to complain about the Cityview closing? The manager of Saga’s stations? Odds are that person can’t help you much.

By contrast, our local daily paper, the News-Gazette, remains locally owned, even after the recent death of owner Marajen Stevick Chinigo. In fact, Ms. Chinigo steadfastly kept the paper in local hands, even setting it up to be run by a local private foundation after her death. Ms. Chinigo was active and had many ties in this community. Even though this connection may not always be obvious in the pages of the paper, there’s the knowledge that the owner takes the needs of the community into account. It seems much less likely that the News-Gazette would be shuttered in the same manner as the Cityview.

With luck the Gazette’s new foundation ownership will gird it against the winds of change that threaten to blow in from Washington, DC. This spring the FCC will complete its mandated biennial review of media ownership rules. One of the rules under review is the so-called newspaper-television cross-ownership rule. In short, this rule strictly limits the ability of a single owner to possess both a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same city or market.

Under this rule the News-Gazette may not own a local TV station, and vice-versa. Were this rule eliminated, the Gazette could be a tasty take-over target.

A couple of local media players would like the see the rule go away, too. Nexstar Broadcasting, which owns CBS affiliate WCIA-TV channel 3, and Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns WICD-TV channel 15, both recently filed comments with the FCC advocating that the cross-ownership ban be eliminated.

Now, we don’t know if these two companies have any immediate plans for getting into the newspaper business in Central Illinois–they own TV stations in lots of other places also. But it is clear that they would like the option, should the opportunity arise.

Nexstar and Sinclair have also asked the FCC to eliminate what is known as the duopoly rule, which restricts the ownership of two stations in a single market. However, in practice the FCC grants all sorts of exceptions to this rule. In fact, Nexstar and Sinclair both also own stations in Springfield (WCFN Ch. 49 and WICS Ch. 20, respectively), a city which is considered part of our television market by the FCC, even though these stations really can’t be received in Champaign-Urbana.

What Nexstar and Sinclair really want, however, is to be able to own two stations in a single city like Champaign or Springfield. Sinclair, in fact, has been aggressively pursuing duopolies for a few years now, and is even trying to get a triopoly in Nashville, TN.

Sinclair is the company to watch because it has recently begun a plan for centralizing local news broadcasts, especially in cities where they own more than one station. Under their “News Central” program, most of the local news broadcast–like national news, sports and weather–actually originates from their central facility in Maryland and is aired simultaneously on the company’s other stations. Meanwhile, a small skeleton crew at the local stations handles a short cutaway for the few minutes of local news.

Right now Sinclair is bringing this program to its stations that don’t currently have news broadcasts. Yet, acccording to a Jan. 6 article in Broadcasting and Cable, Sinclair’s corporate news director says that the company plans to bring this centralized “local” news broadcast to all of its stations within two years.

It means that Champaign’s channel 15 may soon see its local news operations stripped down. It would be of greater concern if Sinclair bought another local stations that carries local news–like WAND Ch. 17 or WCIA–and integrated news operations into this model.

In fact, dual ownership between any of these stations would .likely end up with a net loss of news diversity, since there would be little incentive for a single company to maintain two news operations in one market — profits would be much higher with just one shared across two stations.

If the FCC chooses to eliminate these TV ownership restrictions local communities will have little recourse if the likes of Nexstar or Sinclair decide to double up on stations or get into newspapers. Although these companies have to maintain a presence in Champaign-Urbana the big decisions are made in places like Clarks Summit, PA and Baltimore, MD.

Sure, a locally owned company could choose to grow a duopoly or cross-ownership, too. But with a local company, the pressure from local citizens, businesses and community organizations is felt much more strongly. Local opposition can have an affect on local owners. Whereas a non-local owner is insulated, and could just decide to sell-out and leave town, or worse, could decide to shut down a station altogether.

It matters who owns our local media, especially as more outlets are owned by far-flung conglomerates. Even though the FCC’s deadline for commenting on the review of the duopoly and cross-ownership rules has passed, it’s never too late to write the FCC and your federal representatives to tell them what you think about letting more non-local companies own more of our local media outlets.

For more information about media ownership in Champaign-Urbana, see the first issue of the public i on-line at http://publici.ucimc.org/aug2001/082001.htm . The article is called “Media Monopoly in Champaign-Urbana?” and maps out local ownership more specifically.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *