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

Page 3 of 4

Convergence didn't save the Trib from having to lay off 70 employees, including six in the newsroom, two weeks ago. But Coats said convergence didn't cause the deep cuts; in fact, she argued that convergence allowed the Tribune to hang onto its staffing levels longer than many other newspapers in the country that are laying off hundreds of journalists, production workers and other employees.

Former Tribune reporter and editor Suzie Siegel is critical of convergence's impact on in-depth reporting, especially in her specialty field of diversity.

"Before I left, the Trib had become increasingly interested in graphics and images to the extent that some not-so-good stories got more prominent display, simply because the photos were better," Siegel said. "Convergence with WFLA has made images even more important. But this is a national trend."

Some reporters, especially old print die-hards, remain skeptical of the kind of additional duties and cross-training that convergence requires. And some TV reporters resent giving up their extremely limited airtime to the scribes.

"Airtime for local TV news staff is very precious, and the jobs pay well," said one Tribune journalist who requested anonymity because of concerns over the recent layoffs. "So I doubt there's much enthusiasm among the broadcast journalists for letting low-paid scribblers grab coveted screen minutes — and maybe do well enough to replace a few expensive prima donnas. On the other end, I know lots of reporters who have absolutely no interest in being on camera and resent the possibility they might have to."

Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist and nationally known media critic, said he heard similar sentiments when he spent time in the Tribune newsroom researching his 2007 book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media. He called Media General's Tampa NewsCenter the "world's most sophisticated convergence news operation," but added that most of the benefit of convergence seemed to flow in one direction: away from the newspaper.

"They have done some very creative things to further multimedia operations," Klinenberg said. "The innovations helped improve the broadcast and the Internet, but did not necessarily improve the daily newspaper. The reporters I shadowed worried that they were being pulled off the beat to do a television appearance or a graphic. Many people I spoke with were worried about the future of journalism."

Perhaps the scariest specter of media consolidation is the possible loss of diverse voices and ownership in Tampa Bay media. Already, national studies show the disparity: 33 percent of the nation are minorities, yet just 3 percent of the major broadcast TV stations are owned by minorities. Just over half of the population is female; yet women own only 5 percent of the stations.

For existing minority-owned media, the battlefield isn't the content war; it is fought in the back office and on the bottom line. Several minority-owned stations and publications in Tampa Bay say they are having trouble competing with the conglomerates that can offer advertisers multiple stations and newspapers.

"Papers like mine are an endangered species, even with the current trends," let alone the possibility of more media consolidation, said Patrick Manteiga, owner and editor of the 85-year-old trilingual weekly La Gaceta newspaper. His political column regularly beats the dailies on local stories, the result of three generations of editors who worked the beat like few others in Florida. But when he sells ads, he is up against a Media General machine that can offer advertisers all kinds of English-language placements, plus Hispanic media as a bonus.

"It puts me at an inherent disadvantage," Manteiga said.

Latino newspapers aren't alone in being impacted.

"We are feeling that pressure right now, since CBS [which owns several radio stations in the market] turned 92.5 into Spanish," said Marc Vila, vice president and general manager of WQBN 1150 AM, "La Super Q," a 100 percent-Hispanic-owned station headquartered in Tampa. "When a multiple-station owner in the market goes out to a client, let's say Ferman Auto, and they sit down with the Ferman marketing people and say we've got stations a, b, c and d, if you give us 80 percent of the budget, then we can give you a deal on the Hispanic market."

Throw in exclusive marketing deals that also shut out smaller media, and you not only hurt the bottom line but keep locally owned stations from having a higher profile in the community. Size = power, Vila said, pointing out that Media General's Spanish-language Centro newspaper has Budweiser ads, revenue that doesn't show up in the other Hispanic print publications.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.