Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Media General gets severe bashing at FCC hearing

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 9:06 AM

click to enlarge WMNF's Rob Lorei
  • WMNF's Rob Lorei

Members from the Federal Communications Commission hosted a meeting on ownership rules for media companies on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus on Tuesday afternoon, as they contemplate allowing  corporations more opportunities to take over broadcast outlets.

Apparently not that many people care.

Though that was our take as less than 50 people were in attendance at the all day event, but Brandy Doyle, Regulatory Policy Associate with the Prometheus Radio Project, begs to differ.

Doyle, who has been attending such workshops over the past year, said it " was actually quite large for an FCC event with no Commissioners present and no publicity in the newspapers or on TV."

The meeting, which lasted four and a half hours (though this correspondent could only make it through 4 hours, as we then ventured to a debate between Hillsborough Republicans hoping to take on Kathy Castor this fall), featured representatives from several local media groups, several FCC officials, and members of the public, who were given (more than) ample time to ask questions and have an exchange with officials about cross-ownership, and various other aspects of media law.

Sitting on the dais with a bullseye seemingly attached to him was  John Schueler, President of the Florida Communications Group with Media General, the Virginia based corporate owner of the Tampa Tribune, WFLA News Channel 8, and TBO.Com, an example of cross-ownership that the FCC said they came to Tampa  to learn more about as a future model.

The afternoon began with 10 minute presentations by those on the panel, such as La Gaceta's Publisher and Editor Patrick Manteiga, who said "The leverage of having the county's major daily newspaper and a TV station allows their representatives to get in the door of major advertisers where single publication enterprises like mine are barred.....The promises of cross-owners and conglomerates are not reality.  The Tampa Tribune is fading away at a faster rate than most dailies even with the heft of a television station at its side.  Radio has no diversity of voice.  It's either salacious or blaring out of only the right speaker."

Bernard Lunzer, President of the Newspaper Guild-CWA.  He said that if the FCC lifts the cross-ownership ban entirely, "it will have done nothing to preserve or promote quality information."  Instead, he suggested "there can be tax breaks for low-profit news organizations that commit to a state social purpose, like the L3C style corporation law that been drifting around Congress for a couple of years. ...There should be indirect ways for communities to own papers - call it the Green Bay Packers model."

Karen Dunlap from the Poynter Institute said cross-ownership was not the critical issue when it comes to the FCC charge;  she suggested increasing diversity of minority ownership, a lack of access for many in this country to broadband, and championing civil arguments were far more important in 2010.

Throughout the discussion, Media General's Schueler suggested that government needed to "get out of the way," as he spoke forcefully that the cross-ownership ban needed to be rescinded.  He said that his company had been devastated by the recession and the crises in reduced ads, saying that there had been 1900 employees terminated by Media General in recent years (locally, over 100 jobs have been lost in Tampa).

Moderator Steve Waldman asked Schueler how could all of those job losses possibly be "better" for his company or journalism overall, as he had been insisting?  Schueler responded by saying that those who still do have jobs now have multi-media skills as they've had to adopt to learning new things to be viable.

At one point, USF-St. Pete Journalism Professor Robert Dardenne took exception to some of Schueler's terminology about "markets," saying, "Words do matter. With markets you have consumers, with communities you have citizens. "

He also questioned the idea of "more news"being generated, taking a shot at the various blogs on the St. Petersburg Times website, such as "The Juice " and "Whoa, Mama", and lamented the fact that he said cross-ownership does not create more local news.

Various local citizens, such as Speak Up Tampa Bay's Louise Thompson, Arlene Sweeting of Sarasota community radio station WSLR, and former Democratic Congressional candidate John Russell addressed the commission, criticizing the current media landscape on a number of fronts.

But one of the most interesting exchanges came towards the end, when WMNF News & Public Affairs Director (and my former boss) Rob Lorei directly confronted Schueler about what's happened at the Tribune.

"Many of the veteran reporters have been laid off from the Tampa Tribune.  Victims not only of the recession, but what Tribune employees tell me is the relentless demand by Media General headquarters in Richmond (Va.) to return a 20-25% profit."  Lorei said he had spoken with some former Trib reporters in recent days and said none wanted to attend the hearing.

He said that though there are still good reporters at both the Tribune and News Channel 8, "former executives of the Tribune confirm there is less investigative and enterprise reporting being conducted at converged operations at the Tribune/WFLA.  There is a difference of opinion on why that is among former employees."

He confirmed the Trib unfavorably to recent investigations by the St. Petersburg Times, saying, "The Times is unencumbered by the need to satisfy out of town owners. "

Schueler emphatically denied that Media General imposed a specific profit margin on the Trib/WFLA, and said that in fact the Times had let go of a number of journalists over the past few years.  But he said that the crash in classified ads had severely hurt the paper.  "We do investigative journalism in all platforms," he insisted.

The FCC is expected to rule on the issue of cross-ownership later this year.

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