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Media Circus

Know Your Moguls

By Michael Anft | Posted 11/21/2001

When it comes to preaching about ownership of media outlets, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) talks a good game. In announcing the creation of an FCC "working group" on Oct. 29, commission chairperson Michael Powell dutifully noted the need for such a panel to investigate "how changes in regulations would affect the [FCC's] policy goals of competition, diversity, and localism." Those alleged goals have heretofore been underserved by the commission because of the lack of "a contemporaneous picture of the media market," Powell added.

Pardon the cynicism, but for all the chair's concern about the growing consolidation of media outlets (hence the "diversity and localism" bit), the deck is stacked and is likely to remain so--and not just among FCC licensees who own radio and TV stations. Newspapers and magazines have also been sopped up by national corporations that themselves have merged into unfathomably huge leviathans (see AOL Time Warner).

None of this is new, of course. Some media watchdogs, such as New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller (formerly of the Johns Hopkins faculty and WJHU), have documented how media power has been merged and acquired into the hands of a few since the '80s. Thanks to a consolidation boom that continued into the '90s, look no further than the absentee landlords who own Baltimore's news properties--including the paper you are now reading--to get a "contemporaneous picture" of how rare provincially held rags and glossies have become.

The city's media power, The Sun, with its daily circulation of about 300,000, is owned by the Tribune Co. of Chicago, which earns $6 billion annually. Besides The Sun, Tribune owns 13 daily newspapers, 23 television stations, dozens of online outfits, four syndication services, four radio stations, and the beautiful losers of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs. In a further sign of how intertwined media companies have become, the corporation invests in other content providers, such as AOL Time Warner, Hollywood Media Corp., the Food Network, and the WB network, whose local affiliate is owned by the Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which also controls Fox 45 (WBFF).

Tribune bought the local daily monopoly early last year from the Times Mirror Co. of Los Angeles, which had bought The Sun in 1986 for $600 million, ending 149 years of local ownership by Baltimorean A.S. Abell and his descendants and partners. In 1997, during Times Mirror's ownership, the Baltimore Sun Co. bought the Columbia-based Patuxent Publishing Co., 13 mostly suburban community weeklies (including the Columbia Flier and Towson Times) with a collective circulation of about 250,000, ending that Columbia-based company's 28-year history of local ownership.

Despite its name, City Paper is the property of a family-owned media company based in the burgeoning metropolis of Scranton, Pa. Times-Shamrock claims a combined circulation of 370,000 for its newspaper group of 26 properties, which includes alt-weekly outposts in Detroit, Orlando, and San Antonio along with a host of dailies and community papers in Pennsylvania. The company also counts radio stations among its holdings, among them locals WZBA (100.7 FM), aka "The Bay," and WTTR (1470 AM). City Paper, a weekly with a circulation of 89,000, was bought from local owners by Times-Shamrock for an undisclosed sum in 1987.

Baltimore's legal and business papers haven't been immune to corporate Darwinism. The Daily Record, the paper of both the legal community and the locally prominent Warfield family for 106 years, was sold to Minneapolis-based Dolan Media Co. in 1994. Dolan owns 15 other media outlets, from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. The Baltimore Business Journal, as far as can be established, has always been part of the North Carolina-based American City Business Journals octopus, which sells papers in 39 markets nationwide (and is in turn owned by New York-based Advance Publications).

Why be concerned about all this? The traditional thinking is that fewer and fewer corporations owning more and more media outlets means fewer voices (hence, fewer stories) for readers, viewers, and listeners. Monopoly dailies can and do get soft and flabby from a lack of competition, as many local readers can attest. The trend also might mean that media companies have more power with which to manipulate consumers with stories and views that further the owning corporation's aims (see The Washington Times, or any paper owned by Rupert Murdoch).

Of course, corporations take a contrary view. In a Web-site come-on to would-be shareholders, the Tribune Co. boasts that its media properties reach 80 percent of U.S. households. While that thought might chill many of us, corporations work in the interests of themselves and their shareholders--it's the only reason they exist, in fact. In the hands of such persons, "news" arguably becomes an instrument of profit first and a service to the community second.

Federal agencies have winked as the merger-and-acquisitions sharks have eaten smaller fish. When The Sun bought Patuxent Publishing, the Justice Department's antitrust division investigated the sale for 90 days, then approved it, setting a precedent for similar takeovers of groups of suburban weeklies by large daily newspapers in Milwaukee and elsewhere. Proponents of (or apologists for) such deals say a growing number of media voices through the Web, community-access television channels, and desktop publishing negates the potential impact of consolidation, but new media rarely reach audiences anywhere near as large as those of swallowed publications. All of which makes FCC chairman Powell's peals of concern ring particularly hollow.

Baltimore still does have a few Charm City-owned publications. They range from mom-and-pop operations (such as the now Web-only Baltimore Chronicle, owned by founding husband and wife Larry Krause and Alice Cherbonnier) to family businesses (The Baltimore Afro-American, The Jewish Times and its glossy spinoff, Style) to entrepreneurial ventures (Baltimore magazine, held by Rosebud Entertainment LLC, whose principal is comic-books magnate Stephen Geppi).

Some time in the coming weeks, this column will hold radio and TV stations to the same provincial test.

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