December 13, 2012

Caroline H. Little is president and chief executive of the Arlington-based Newspaper Association of America.

Nearly four decades ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) feared that dominant newspapers would control all local news in their markets. So the FCC crafted a rule that prohibited investors from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city.

That policy, adopted in 1975, seems quaint going into 2013. To put the explosive growth of the Internet in context: In the first six months of this year, Google brought in more advertising revenue than all printed daily and Sunday newspapers and magazines in the United States combined. While online, TV and mobile-app markets are teeming with new players, newspapers can no longer be seen as dominant.

Congress, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission recently held hearings and workshops about how to support newspaper journalism as they grapple with the seismic changes in the digital marketplace. There is little the government can or should do to help newspapers, but one thing is clear: The FCC’s rule barring broadcast companies from making investments in newspapers hurts the publishing industry and should be repealed.

Nearly a year ago, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowskiproposed liberalizing the rule, and it seemed that the newspaper industry might finally get some relief from this regulatory penalty.

However, a handful of vocal public-interest groups claim that this proposal, which has been open to public comment for months, has taken them by surprise. Letting TV companies invest in newspapers will harm minority ownership of media, they argue.

All communities need strong local journalism that shines a light on the issues that are of concern to them. That strong local journalism is — and will come from — newspapers. In fact, many minority-owned online sites, where barriers to entry are low, rely on the original and aggregated news content provided by newspaper journalism. Simply put, newspapers start the conversation, and the online news sites carry the dialogue forward with readers in their community. That’s why a coalition of almost 50 civil rights organizations, led by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, filed comments in favor of liberalizing the cross-ownership ban.

The FCC’s notice of proposed rule-making clearly identifies the urgent need for new investments in local news operations. Over the years, FCC-commissioned research and studies have regularly found that the broadcast stations owned by newspapers in the same city, grandfathered under the existing rules, consistently provide more local news and public affairs programming than stations not owned by such newspapers. This makes sense, since newspapers are in the business of local news.

Through the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress required the FCC to review its media ownership rules every four years to determine whether they need to be updated to reflect changes in the media marketplace. The newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule is the only one of the four ownership rules that has not been recalibrated since 1975.

This outdated rule prevents broadcast companies from investing in newspapers at a time when local journalism needs to be bolstered. It is time for the FCC to provide much-needed relief to the newspaper industry, which has labored under this ownership ban for far too many years.