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Originally published September 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 28, 2007 at 9:28 AM

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In defense of media cross-ownership

It's said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I would also argue that few things are more destructive than an idea...

Special to The Times

It's said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I would also argue that few things are more destructive than an idea whose time is past — but refuses to yield to reality.

Those who continue to support the 30-year-old ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market are living in a curious time warp — where a community's communications consisted of a newspaper and, at best, a handful of local television and radio stations. Yes, the so-called "Golden Age" of television gave consumers only three choices — the polar opposite of today's rich, multimedia world.

Incredibly, as new information technologies have sparked a global revolution in how we live, work, learn and form opinion, cross-ownership is the only communications rule that has never been updated to reflect the present.

It is stuck in the bygone times before cable, national newspapers, the Internet, satellite television, satellite radio, podcasting, cellphones, blogs and all the other ways information now flows around the world and through the lives of consumers.

When you look at all the sources of information available to every citizen of every community, the original intent of the rule — to prevent any single corporate entity from becoming too powerful a single voice in a community — is laughable. Could any single company or entity tell the people of Seattle how to think?

We have unlimited access to news, information and opinion from millions of sources. For the first time in history, control of media has moved from the center to the edge. Anyone with a laptop and some rudimentary software can be a publisher — and is.

Those fighting furiously to keep an outmoded rule from bygone times on life support have much to ignore.

They are ignoring a transformation in communications that constitutes the greatest shift in information since the advent of movable type.

They are ignoring the positiveexperiences of 40 communities — from small towns to Chicago — that were grandfathered when the rule was adopted and have enjoyed better service from the cross-owned stations than their fellow citizens elsewhere.

Studies show that television stations co-owned with local daily newspapers provide more local news and nonentertainment programming than other television stations. And, the last time we checked, citizens in these grandfathered towns and cities were making up their own minds, making informed decisions and participating in a working democracy.

And, while they are fixated on raising fears about an information monopoly that modern technology makes impossible, the ban's supporters are ignoring the opportunity for traditional media to provide more and better programming in a newly — and brutally — competitive media landscape.

The pro-ban response: "No worries." Newspapers and broadcasters are still the most popular local media, an argument that says we should look at the competitive landscape today and 30 years ago as the same. The Internet, if you follow that logic, is still a hobby.

In arguing that broadcasters and newspapers are financially healthy and in no need of a change in rule-making, they are both right and very wrong. Media in many local communities are, in fact, healthy. But, the trends clearly do not favor "traditional" media.

This question is not whether traditional media can "survive" with the cross-ownership ban in place. It's whether they have the resources to offer the very quality and diversity that pro-regulation camps say they want to protect.

In communities where both newspapers and broadcasters are making adjustments in the face of competition, allowing cross-ownership will enable local media to leverage their news operations across new and wider audiences — to allow those audiences to access local news when, where and how they want to.

Anyone who argues that it will lead to a simple repackaging of content across mediums is selling short media consumers. They have choices. If the value in content isn't there, they won't be, either.

Someone said the key to happiness is the ability to look reality in the eye — and deny it. Happiness, maybe, but not a vibrant and viable local media market.

The reality is that if we can finally delete this last, useless rule from ancient media history, local newspapers, television and radio will be stronger, and consumers will be assured the quality and the diversity of programming they want and deserve.

For that to happen, we must stop trying to see the future by looking out the back window. Folks, it's not 1975 anymore. We must not allow a handful of dissenters with a narrow agenda to prevent us from what logic, studies, technology, majority opinion and great opportunity for better and more local coverage say that future can be.

John F. Sturm is president and chief executive officer of the Newspaper Association of America, located in Arlington, Va.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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