Will Big Media bury us?

As the FCC heads to Tampa for a national hearing, free-press activists warn that journalism — and democracy — are in danger

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"Playlists have been corporatized, nationalized and sanitized," Mills continued. "Airplay for local and new artists is a virtual impossibility."

The bassist said without locally owned radio stations, R.E.M. would not have made it. "We grew organically through word of mouth, local buzz and incessant touring," he said. "A journey like ours would be virtually impossible in today's era of consolidated radio conglomerates and concentrated mega-labels."

The singer Babyface's story was more dire. Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds' ex-wife, Tracey, recounted how the R&B artist and producer Russell Simmons put together an all-star effort to get out the vote with a recording of "Wake Up Everybody" during the 2004 elections, according to an account published by Reclaim the Media, another group fighting media consolidation. The song, which featured Mary J. Blige, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott among others, was ignored by Clear Channel radio, Mrs. Edmonds testified, because the company's owner was a Friend of Bush and feared the tune could produce votes for John Kerry.

That kind of direct intervention in suppressing content is rare. The more insidious affect of media consolidation is the loss of local news. A 2004 report by two FCC economists that studied broadcast media estimated that local ownership of a station yields almost 5.5 minutes of local news and more than three additional minutes of local on-location news, where a reporter is actually on the scene of a news event.

The economists' study was spiked by the FCC and hidden away for three years. The researchers said "no plausible explanation" for burying the report was given but believed it was because their conclusion ran contrary to FCC and broadcast industry desires for more deregulation. The report came to light in January after an Associated Press reporter found out about it. Current FCC Chairman Martin has since had the agency post all eight drafts of the study on its website.

The FCC is coming to Tampa, for the most part, because of Media General's convergence project, which has merged (to varying degrees) the operations of Newschannel 8, the Tribune and the website TBO.

Unlike other convergence experiments in the nation, Media General constructed a new building to house all three media and combined assignment desks and sports reporting operations.

For 13 years, Trib religion reporter Michelle Bearden has not only filed stories for print but spent part of her week in front of a video camera, taping her Friday evening "Keeping the Faith" segment.

Without convergence, Bearden insisted, stories about faith and religion would not be showing up on the airwaves of a major commercial broadcast station.

"There are so many stories in the faith-based world that are good, the kinds of stories that you don't see on TV any more, and to take [a TV reporter] aside and say go out and cover this interesting story that is not about murder or mayhem, it just doesn't happen," she said.

The newspaper benefits as well, Bearden added. "A lot of people call me and say they saw me on Channel 8 and here's a story idea. I would not want to do television singularly, but I feel like there's a lot more clout" now as a print reporter with a broadcast presence.

Tribune Executive Editor Janet Coats is likewise sold on convergence. As an editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, she led a converged newsroom that printed the newspaper and operated a cable news outlet, Six News Now, or SNN.

She cites numerous examples where all three media platforms — print, broadcast and online — have teamed up to give consumers information in ways that were unimaginable only five years ago. When tornadoes ripped through Central Florida, interactive graphics showed just where, and the Eagle 8 helicopter gave Tribune photographers an aerial view that other print journalists didn't have.

"I think that the question that used to get put to me in Sarasota and Tampa is, 'Does this really make newspapers better and television better?'" Coats said. "Yes, to some degree, but there are some trade-offs. The real gain is what it creates for us in the digital world. When you look at what convergence has done for us in this newsroom, it has made us much better able to play in a digital world."

One trade-off comes because of the inherent conflict present in trying to write about a TV station that your employer owns, a reality that complicates Trib media reporter Walt Belcher's job. He acknowledged writing fewer critical stories about other stations' gaffes or mistakes because of his relationship with Newschannel 8, not wanting to appear like he is nitpicking the competitors. He said he has also noticed that the other stations seem less forthcoming with information that he used to get routinely from them, he believes because they fear tipping off a competitor about their plans. He doesn't confer with the sister station on stories, but the Newschannel 8 editors do have daily access to find out what Belcher is writing before it is printed.

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