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Breaking the News

It's not the Internet that's killing newspapers. It's the equity-chasing investors and their friends at the FCC who have put outsize profits before a free press.

Three weeks after Martin's embarrassing Senate appearance, the fcc held a rare public hearing in Los Angeles, the first of six that Martin had promised before his planned proposal of new ownership rules later this year. He had hoped the event would be a chance to win over skeptics. But it would be a tough sell: The ban on cross-ownership has bipartisan support from a loose-knit coalition that includes religious conservatives, centrist Democrats, and an array of progressive groups. "The failure to implement these rule changes is not our fault alone," Martin had told a meeting of newspaper publishers last spring. "The public is not convinced of the need to change these rules, and if you can't convince the public, our chances to do that are dim."

Martin assured the more than 500 people who had packed into an auditorium at the University of Southern California that "public input is critical to this process." Yet once the microphone was opened to the floor, it was obvious that he didn't like what he heard. "There were about 100 people who spoke," recalled Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the fcc, "and I'd say 99 of them spoke out against media consolidation while one spoke out in favor of it. And I thought that was great, because that's just about the breakdown of how Americans feel about this issue." As speaker after speaker pounded the fcc's cozy relationship with the companies it's supposed to regulate, Martin slumped in his seat, head in hands. By the time his staff rescued him to attend another event, he looked like a man who wished he'd never gotten out of bed.

Martin had made the mistake of kicking off his final deregulatory push in Los Angeles. Having witnessed the havoc the Chicago-based Tribune Co. had wreaked upon the Los Angeles Times during the past six years, Angelenos were familiar with what can happen when an out-of-town company tries to control the local media.

Tribune Co. is the nation's second-largest newspaper owner (behind Gannett) and is, more importantly, the only corporation to own both a newspaper and a television station in the three largest markets in the United States—Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. (The Chicago arrangement is grandfathered; the FCC has granted Tribune temporary waivers to cross-own properties in the other cities.) The company acquired the Los Angeles Times, along with New York's Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, and the Hartford Courant, when it purchased Times Mirror Co. for $8.3 billion in 2000. Its executives proclaimed that the deal would make Tribune "the premier multimedia company in America." They marched into Los Angeles prepared to merge news production at the Times and the WB network affiliate ktla, folding another city into their "convergence media" model, in which journalistic and corporate "synergies" between newspapers, TV stations, and websites reduce inefficiency and maximize profits.

The paper's employees and readers soon discovered that this jargon was code for old-fashioned downsizing. The Los Angeles Times had long been known for its extensive local coverage as well as national and international reporting on a par with the New York Times and the Washington Post. Indeed, it won six Pulitzers in 2004, before Tribune started slashing its domestic and international bureaus—just as world events and Southern California's booming immigrant population made their reporting more necessary than ever. By 2006, Tribune had eliminated one-fourth of the editorial staff, trimmed the news section, and canned two popular editors-in-chief after disputes over cutbacks, losing 335,000 subscribers in the process. (See "Reckless Disregard")

The Times' critics also charge that the leaner publication lost touch with local issues and its civic mission. "A succession of publishers and editors who don't know an Amber Alert from SigAlert"—warnings to look for kidnapped children and massive tie-ups on L.A. freeways, respectively—"have been parachuted in to run the Times," wrote Harry B. Chandler, a former Times executive whose family owned the paper for nearly 120 years, in an op-ed last November. "The paper needs executives who understand the area. Providing great editorial coverage and civic leadership for this, the largest, most complicated urban space in the world, are tasks unsuited to outsiders whose tour of duty in the Southland may not outlast the Santa Anas."

When convergence failed to produce a windfall, and Tribune Co. stock dropped almost 35 percent in three years, shareholders—including many members of the Chandler clan—revolted. Last fall, Tribune put its entire business on the block. The decision fed hopes that David Geffen or another benevolent mogul would acquire the Times (at press time, sharks including Rupert Murdoch were also circling). The auction also added to suspicions that Tribune had been, as one Hartford Courant writer put it, "bleeding its local properties to keep the corporate mother ship in Chicago above water."

If Tribune's record in Los Angeles should give pause to advocates of consolidation, so too should its stranglehold on its hometown media market, where its holdings include the Chicago Tribune; "superstation" CW affiliate wgn-tv; wgn, the region's top AM radio station; cltv, the only local cable news station; Chicago magazine; the top online entertainment guide; the most popular Spanish-language daily; a tabloid aimed at readers 18 to 34; and the Chicago Cubs.

Tribune Co.'s presence is so powerful that locals refer to Chicago as "Trib Town"; the Wall Street Journal observed that the company has become "synonymous with the part of the world in which its audience lives." When a story piques the interest of Tribune's managers and editors, it echoes through the company's news outlets, giving it extraordinary influence in setting the local political and cultural agenda. Independent and locally owned news outlets often take their cues from Tribune. As Steve Edwards, host of a popular local affairs program on public radio station wbez, told me: "If the Tribune decides something was a major story and runs front-page coverage and repeated editorials on it, you would hear that story topping many local newscasts; you would hear other reporters doing more coverage of that issue.... There's no question there would be a ripple effect." Or, as a Chicago media critic puts it, "Tribune is the 800-pound gorilla."

The company also has the power to relegate a story to obscurity merely by ignoring it. Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has himself enjoyed nearly unchecked power in the city for almost two decades, acknowledged this when Tribune Co. all but ignored his favorite team, the Chicago White Sox, during its march to the 2005 World Series. "How can you compete with Tribune?" he asked. "I mean, give me a break. They own the Cubs, they own wgn Radio [and] TV and cltv. Come on. You think you are going to get any publicity for the White Sox? You can't. Let's be realistic."

And Tribune's ability to decide what becomes news goes far beyond baseball. In 2000, for instance, the Chicago Housing Authority announced the city's largest planning initiative since the urban renewal programs of the 1950s, proposing a 10-year, $1.6 billion scheme to demolish 18,000 units of public housing, forcing thousands of families into the private market. Local and federal agencies implemented the massive, controversial plan without significant public input, not even from public housing residents. The project was ripe for investigation, yet Tribune's management didn't take issue with it, and the Chicago Tribune and its media siblings barely took notice. Almost 50 "special reports" are listed on the newspaper's website, yet not one concerns public housing. This oversight was consistent with the paper's larger blind spot concerning issues affecting black Chicagoans, says local author and activist Jamie Kalven. "What about coverage of segregation? Or poverty?" he asks. "You can't make up for that with a special report."

But is it truly possible for a company—no matter how large—to dominate a local market in the digital age? According to Tribune Co. executives, the company's editorial decisions have limited impact in Chicago because consumers there have an infinite number of additional news sources. "In an environment where people's choices for obtaining information have radically multiplied, there is no risk of one voice dominating the marketplace of ideas," Jack Fuller, then-president of Tribune's publishing division, told the Senate Commerce Committee in 2001. "Today in clamorous cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, it is frankly a challenge for any voice—no matter how booming—to get itself heard." Yet Tribune has told a different story to investors. Speaking to shareholders in 2005, President and ceo Dennis Fitz Simons boasted that the company's "varied media choices" for Chicagoans reached 6.4 million people, or more than 90 percent of the market.

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