Powell to NAA: Expect Ownership Reform

By: Lucia Moses

Newspapers are “likely to fare well” under changes in media ownership anticipated later this year, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell told attendees April 28 at the Newspaper Association of America’s annual gathering here.

Powell, responding to a question from the audience after a speech, said, “I’m confident there’s going to be a very good result across the board on June 2.” That’s the date the FCC, after stops and starts in recent years, is scheduled to complete its review of the rules limiting consolidation of media ownership, including the ban on cross-ownership of same-market newspapers and TV stations.

Bolstering his support for relaxing the rules, Powell pointed to FCC research that showed cross-owned media properties have more news programming and win more news awards than independent news outlets, and said he believes fierce competition for viewers and readers, not consolidation, as critics have charged, has led to bland news coverage.

In his prepared speech, he called for change in government regulation that he said has stifled the creation of new platforms and entry of new media players, to the detriment of consumers. “Government regulations have become a little like zookeepers, feeding the animals — never wanting anyone to roam completely free,” he said.

Powell called for government policy toward media that encourages the development of technology as a way of encouraging democracy. “The most important thing technology is going is putting consumers and citizens more effectively in the driver’s seat,” he said.

Powell’s comments were welcomed by those who favor relaxed ownership rules but disappointed those who hoped to hear specifics about the extent and nature of such changes.

“I could have written the speech myself,” said William Dean Singleton, vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group Inc., outgoing NAA chairman, and a supporter of deregulation.

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, one of a few vocal opponents among his peers of relaxing media ownership rules, charged the FCC with keeping the public in the dark about the process that may lead to deregulation, which he fears will lead to fewer journalistic voices.

“People ought to be scared to death when you have a handful of big businesses that are getting bigger, that are going to control all the conduits of information,” he said. Blethen predicted deregulation would lead to a frenzy of consolidation, which would then unleash public opposition to the rule changes.

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