Does the Net Counter Consolidation?
How the Web may or may not live up to the FCC’s “diversity of choice” claim
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
When it comes to the big decisions, news Web sites typically get the same consideration as kids in the family minivan. If Mom and Dad decide to visit scary Aunt Edna--or make a deal with General Electric--then everyone's along for the ride. But in the recent Federal Communications Commission debates, the Internet was treated as a mature player in the media family.
Although they weren't directed at the Net, the FCC's new rules and their rationale have spawned questions about how diverse the average American's online news diet is, whether it could compensate for a potentially more homogenous traditional media diet, and how new print-broadcast pairings would play out on the Web.
When the FCC cited diversity of choice via the Internet--along with satellite and cable TV--as a reason for loosening ownership rules in June, some critics balked. "If anything, the Web and cable satellite have expanded the reach of media conglomerates," wrote Farhad Manjoo on Salon.com. "Every single one of the top 20 Web sites is under the thumb of a media giant."
It does seem that old media rule the Web. Presented with all the voices and choices in the world, the average online news consumer makes a beeline for traditional media megaliths. As an op-ed in the New York Times pointed out, the top five news sites get more traffic than the next 15 combined.
Well, what would we expect? Who else in the post-boom era has the reporting resources to support a massive news service online but the organizations that already do that in the real world? Even Yahoo! News and AOL News--the two Internet brands that break into Nielsen//NetRatings' top five--get their content from traditional media partners.
The difference is that if you don't care for MSNBC.com or CNN.com, the Internet offers alternatives. It's all right there: foreign press, Weblogs--or another city's newspaper. Even the popular news search engines tap an eclectic group of sources. The surge of traffic to foreign sites such as BBC.com and aljazeera.net during the Iraq war and the dramatic spikes to U.S. sites during major news show that people know how to branch out on the Web when they want to.
The next question we need to ask is where the diversity lies. A world of national and international news sources is now at our fingertips--but when it comes to local and community news, the pool gets smaller. That's one thing that hasn't changed in the Internet era; the selection of local news online still depends on the traditional media in a community.
With much of the concern over ownership focused on local impact, we should be cautious about regarding the Web (or satellite, or cable) as a diversity supplement. As it is crucial to protect quality in local newspapers and broadcasts, it's equally important to support Web sites that inform and connect communities online.
How that's best accomplished is open for debate; the dilemma is essentially the same as it is for other media. If my local paper is owned by the same company as one of my local TV stations, will their Web sites be better or worse?
While the critics are debating whether combined broadcast and print shops produce better journalism, there's a stronger case for merging their Web sites. Examples of converged print/broadcast Web sites abound, some owned by the same company (Media General's TBO.com in Tampa, Belo's Dallas Web Sites) and others owned by different companies (Oklahoma City's NewsOK.com). By many measures--audience, awards, respect in the industry--the resulting sites are greater than the sum of their parts.
The quality of converged Web sites reflects that their partners are thinking strategically and progressively about their online presence. They also enjoy the obvious benefit of shared resources: in-depth articles, photographs and video. And the combined staff and money allow for more work on databases and interactive projects. All local news Web staffs should be as empowered as today's converged darlings.
This is not necessarily an argument for consolidation. First, separate newsrooms can collaborate without sharing a corporate owner. Second, sites such as TBO.com and NewsOK.com work largely because their owners have committed resources to them. Online collaboration is a strategy, not a cost-cutting measure. Finally, ownership doesn't imply convergence; owners could easily decide to keep their newsrooms separate. Nonetheless, it's reasonable to expect that two or more local newsrooms owned by the same company would team up online.
As the online news audience grows, so will the Internet's significance as an alternative information channel. But if most people use news sites run by big media, we can't regard the Web as the antidote to assimilation.###