The Price Point | Third Circuit Rules Against Newspaper Survival
Every student of media history knows that todays newspaper-television crossownership rule came into being, at least in part, because Richard Nixon wanted to punish Katharine Graham for the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate.
Nixon resigned in 1974, but by then many in Congress had become concerned about crossownership in general and the ban passed in 1975. Existing combinations were grandfathered, but Graham took the threat so seriously that she eventually traded away WTOP Washington (now WUSA) for WWJ Detroit (now WDIV).
It is a tragedy that the crossownership ban, originally created not because of public outcry but for political reasons, is still with us, now sporting a small group of vocalists who think any form of consolidation will destroy local news. Those Luddites no doubt cheered the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ latest rejection of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s effort to bring common sense reform.
The court’s decision is especially unfortunate for newspapers, most of which are trying to hang on until digital revenue hopefully someday replaces declining traditional revenue. The public’s desire for on-demand video and an aging user base do not work in their favor. Lest I throw stones, those are also threats to local television, but television stations at least have the video advantage and their entertainment programming attracts all age groups.
What would happen if the ban were lifted? Simply combining a television station and a newspaper will not work. We’ve seen this fail more than once, most spectacularly in Tampa, Fla. The competing cultures continue to be too strong and too ingrown to mesh. There are a few positive stories, but most have simply not worked.
The real opportunity is to create an entirely new kind of local news organization combining the best of both. It would not be about saving legacy media. It would be about creating the future.
The new enterprise might have a new name, but more likely housed under the television station’s call letters with the paper’s masthead as a sub. No matter, for the first time, video, breaking news, emergency weather and all of the other things that television does so well would be combined with the depth and breadth only a newspaper brings to the table.
Past experiments have relied too much on hope, long-term projections and the assumption employees would buy in. Enough elephants were left in the room to start a circus. This led to death by a thousand cuts.
We know what does not work, so what will? The answer is simple. A plan that is profitable from day one.
Using immediate profitability as the standard would force tough decisions at the outset. If something is not sustainable, why keep it? Ethics, high standards and public interest would remain essential, but only profit ensures long-term success.
The second lesson is to assemble a workforce that buys into the strategic vision. Some platform snobs would find the idea of everyone on the same page abhorrent. Their views should be respected even as they are eased out the door. There would still be room for different skill sets and platform experts, but not at the expense of a unified goal.
Since we are changing the business model, we should also change our attitude toward end users. That means broadening our definition of local news and making a place at the table for consumer generated content. That kind of engagement matters to people who don’t remember the 20th century.
Does all of this sound too tough? I don’t think so. Too tough is kidding people about the future. Too tough is sacrificing the things we value about local newspapers because no one can pay the light bill. Creating the future is tough. Not trying means certain failure.
Finally, think about this. Would you like to compete against such an enterprise? I wouldn’t.
This is one in a series of occasional columns from Hank Price, a media consultant, author and speaker. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a handbook for general managers. He spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis. He also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.