Is cross-ownership good for journalism?

Should your cell phone company also own your local newspaper, control your ISP and run your local TV station? Billy Shields investigates media convergence both north and south of the border.

Canadians, should your cell phone company also own your local newspaper, control your ISP, and run your local TV station? Is it any better south of the border, where ownership rules have stymied complete consolidation? Who’s better served by these two regimes?

Wait for it… it depends on who you ask.

“Whether Canadians are better served than Americans is kind of a mug’s game,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalism professor at Centennial College and the University of Toronto in Scarborough. Dvorkin is a dual citizen who has been the ombudsman at National Public Radio and managing editor at CBC Radio. “The quality of the journalism is really suffering. In Canada media organizations are making tons of money, but they’re passing it on to their shareholders, not the media consumers.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
disagreed, citing the peculiarities of the Canadian market. “There seems to be a great need for having a large company that can bring service to sparsely populated areas. The nature of the Canadian market — vast terrain, small population — makes for a different market from the U.S.,” said Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s executive director of broadcasting. “I’m not sure if the numbers back up the fact that these companies are just profiteering.”

In Canada, the chapters of media history are bookmarked by efforts to stave off intrusions from the southern colossus. The creation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadian content rules, and massive consolidation efforts all have their roots in ensuring Canadians get access to Canadian media.

“Having strong national companies is probably more important in Canada than competition,” said Stephen McDowell, a Canadian communications professor at Florida State University who is also a dual citizen. “By allowing cross ownership, you can make Canadian companies strong enough to withstand takeovers by bigger companies from overseas.”

Remote areas of Canada could be served at least by some form of media, he noted. The theory goes, “if you have too much competition they’re never going to be able to serve rural areas, which in Canada means anything a few hundred miles north of the border,” he joked. In the Canadian media landscape, the concept of national unity often trumps regional programming, he said.

In the States the theory is a bit different. The idea is that the market rules as long as it fosters a marketplace of ideas — but getting to that point has been a balancing act, and sometimes a clumsy one.

“In the past the FCC kept coming up with all these different rules to effect diversity and competition, and they all seemed to fail miserably,” said Jeffrey Blevins, a communications professor at Iowa State University. One of the main examples Blevins cited was the Prime Time Access Rule cooked up by the FCC in the early 1970s. The “PTAR” meant that network affiliates in the states had to open up an hour-long slot that wasn’t national network programming. It was a well-meaning piece of legislation intended to add a local voice to the U.S. broadcast landscape — perhaps a locally produced investigative news magazine — that wasn’t in the marketplace before.

“But the devil’s in the details — the local broadcasters tended to fill that extra hour with syndicated programming,” he said. The most visible legacy of this hour-long timeslot was a gameshow hour, which is exactly what turned “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” into the enduring institutions they are now.

“Merv Griffin made lots of money,” Blevins laughed, adding that PTAR didn’t do much to add another local voice on the airwaves. The U.S. government did away with it in 1996.

From 1975 to 2007, FCC regulations prohibited ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast outlet (radio or TV) in the same local market. The Washington Post’s parent controls broadcast stations in Detroit, Houston and Miami, but doesn’t operate newspapers in those markets. The FCC evaluates crossownership on a case-by-case basis, which started in 2007. Though recently there have been waivers granted by the FCC — especially as some media outlets struggle financially.

Since 2008 in Canada the CRTC uses a two-out-of-three rule, mandating that a company can own two forms of traditional media in a language in a local market among radio, newspapers and television.

But what about online media? Regulations centred on who controls what percentage of an electromagnetic spectrum seem increasingly anachronistic as the world gets more of its news through a medium with few national boundaries. This can get tricky as broadcast platforms increasingly move to mobile phones (whose wireless networks do have capacity constraints) and tablets. And the net neutrality debate — which includes an argument concerning whose content can run on whose network — continues to rage on both sides of the border.

In Canada the CRTC has elected to exempt broadcasters from regulations as they broadcast over the Internet, although in 2009 it cited the need for a comprehensive media strategy in Canada. 

“There is no need for us to start intervening in that domain now,” Hutton said, “or, I venture to say, in the short to medium-term future.”

Billy Shields is a
Montreal-based journalist with about 10 years of news experience working in
places like Mexico, the Caribbean, and Miami. He was on a team of reporters at
The Virgin Islands Daily News that won the 2003 Associated Press Managing
Editors Award for Public Service; his courts reporting took the grand prize in
the Florida Bar’s media awards in 2009. He blogs about Montreal at