Friday, August 24, 2007

Media News Group's Cluster F@!k

The nation's fourth-largest newspaper company is using a regional consolidation strategy to break the backs of local unions and lay off journalists and other staff.

Media News Group (MNG) -- the national chain that owns 57 daily newspapers, regionally "clustered" throughout California, the Mountain West and the Northeast -- solidified its control over Bay Area news by buying up the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News in the wake of Knight-Ridder's recent fire sale.

SingletonSingleton: King of Cluster
With the move, MNG now owns every daily newspaper in the region except the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.

It's trying to use this leverage to break the back of unions and jettison editorial staff.

Cluster, Consolidate and Cut

Earlier this summer, MNG management circulated a hit list of 46 Mercury News journalists to be laid off or not replaced. Typographers also lost 22 positions in San Jose when MNG outsourced production work to India and to nonunion contractors.

Other job cuts are reportedly on the horizon. But first MNG had to remove an obstacle.

In a letter to Newspaper Guild leaders earlier this month, Marshall Anstandig, the company's attorney, stated that MNG's corporate restructuring diminished the Guild's representation to "significantly less than 50% of the newly consolidated editorial group." In his view, this allows the company to dismiss the Guild as a bargaining representative of its employees.

"It follows [MNG CEO] Dean Singleton's business pattern of cut, consolidate and cluster," Guild organizer Amanda Ballantyne told Media Minutes this week. "But it was done in a way we believe to specifically bust the union, to get the union out of the whole scheme of things."

Bad Local News: The Offspring of Inbreeding

The Newspaper Guild has filed several unfair labor practice charges at the National Labor Relations board --- alleging that MNG violated federal law when it refused to hire union workers and transferred jobs to non-union employees.

Spokespeople for newspaper giants like to sugar-coat these sorts of cost-cutting efforts with terms like "clustering" and "synergy." In reality they translate to mean layoffs and cheapened news. Creating an inbred relationship between regional newsrooms degrades coverage, demoralizes staff and discourages readers.

We a recently received a letter from San Jose Mercury News reader who used to enjoy the paper with her morning cup of coffee.

"Since it has been taken over there is not much 'news' to read," she writes. "[And] this was a paper that has won awards for journalistic investigation, and was highly respected. ... My subscription is getting tenuous because my reason for reading the morning paper is being eroded daily."

From Anger to Action

Canceling subscriptions is one form of reader activism. But there are perhaps more productive ways to improve local media.

"We desperately need rules to prevent one-size-fits-all news from becoming the standard in our communities," FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps wrote in a recent op-ed.

We need your input," they wrote. "We believe we have the best chance in our generation to settle this issue of who will control our media and for what purposes."

The FCC will soon decide whether to allow a small number of media giants to buy up more local media outlets across the land.

While this specific ruling may not stop MNG's assault on quality journalism in the Bay Area, it has helped amplify calls for more accountable news at the local level.

This noise can be turned into action by urging the FCC to protect localism and supporting the Guild's ongoing efforts to safeguard local journalism across the country.

-- For more, listen to this week's "Media Minutes"

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The One Campaign Issue Ignored By Big Media? Themselves.

That more presidential candidates are speaking out against media consolidation should signal the importance of this issue in 2008 election cycle. But it's a signal that's not getting a clear reception in the newsrooms of the nation's largest media companies.

The issue bubbled forth during a raucous presidential forum at Saturday's Yearly Kos Convention in Chicago, blogger Jason Rosenbaum rose before seven Democratic candidates to ask:

Dodd and Clinton Speak Out
"With only a handful of companies controlling the majority of news and information Americans consume, media consolidation and a lack of diverse viewpoints in the news is threatening American democracy. How do you plan to support equal access to broadcast media?"

Senators Chris Dodd and Hillary Clinton took the bait. Dodd said that "consolidation ought to be one of the great concerns of every person in this country … I'll do everything I can to see that that is broken up, as president of the United States."

Clinton followed: "I think that we have got to do everything we can to open up our media environment ... We have to have more competition, more voices and [keep] the Internet open so that we don't put it in the domain of any one or a couple of the media or utility owners."

Sending a Signal to Big Media: Pay Attention

Over the past four years, millions of people have spoken out to Congress and the FCC against letting a few companies control so much of the national news agenda. These concerns became more acute over the summer as Rupert Murdoch circled Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal.

As so much media continues to fall into the hands of people with an overt political agenda, it's no wonder candidates are seeking to push the problem into the limelight. But is the message really getting through?

We surveyed the 40 mainstream media outlets that covered the Saturday forum -- including MSNBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Associated Press and local and regional conglomerate-owned newspapers -- and not one mentioned the media consolidation question or the candidates' reply.

"I thought it was the right question for the Yearly Kos because it's not going to get asked at any mainstream network debate," Rosenbaum said about his decision to question candidates during the blogger convention. "This event was the right format."

Blitzer Tries to Change the Channel

John Edwards: Malkin and Blitzer Dodge the Real Issue
It seemed to resonate -- at least with the candidates. On Tuesday, Sen. John Edwards brought the issue before the cameras again. During an appearance on CNN opposite a jumpy Wolf Blitzer, Edwards said:

"I don't want to see Rupert Murdoch -- or anybody else for that matter -- owning every newspaper in America. What we have seen with consolidation of the media is not healthy for this country. We need divergent opinion expressed in this country and if the media is consolidated that runs completely contrary to that."

Blitzer dodged the issue by shifting the discussion from policy to questions about proceeds from a book Edwards wrote for HarperCollins, a News Corp subsidiary. Elsewhere, on Fox News, host Michelle Malkin disparaged Edwards' concerns about her parent company by calling the candidate a "hypocrite" for accepting Murdoch money to publish the book. Neither Spitzer or Malkin cared to respond to Edwards specific concerns or to mention that the North Carolina Senator contributed all proceeds from the deal to charity.

"If you stand up to them and say consolidating the media is a bad thing, it's an unhealthy thing, what they do is attack you," Edwards replied. "They can continue to attack. They will not silence me. We are right about this. The media should not be consolidated and Rupert Murdoch should not own every newspaper in the United States of America"

Blitzer shifted gears again trying to close rank with CNN's cable news rival and defend News Corp's line of attack -- ignoring the larger point about "unhealthy" consolidation at the hands of companies like CNN's own parent Time Warner.

Crossing Party Lines

Rumblings about the threat of powerful media have been heard all along the campaign trail -- from both Democratic and Republican contenders.

Over the past year, nearly every Democratic presidential candidate, including Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. Joe Biden and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, have spoken out against efforts by phone and cable companies to stifle an open Internet and gut "Net Neutrality" -- the fundamental principle that prevents network providers from discriminating against online content and services.

They have been joined by Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, who told Republican bloggers in May that Net Neutrality must be preserved. Candidates including Sen. John McCain and Rep. Ron Paul have also expressed support for a more democratic media, backing initiatives to protect Low Power FM and Internet radio.

But mainstream media has remained mute, perhaps loath to focus on issues that butt against the narrow interests of their owners.

MediaVote 2008

In 2008 though we have a more media-savvy citizens -- people like Rosenbaum -- who find new ways to jam mainstream media and push this issue before the lens. More candidates should follow our lead and take a loud public stand that media conglomerates can't ignore.

Big Media may try to keep this issue in the shadows. With more public activism, before the cameras and the candidates, we can be spark a broader public conversation in 2008 -- one that exposes the many ways the special interests of Big Media owners infiltrates the news that they serve up to millions.

AT&T Plays Gatekeeper. Censors Pearl Jam.

Over the weekend AT&T gave us a glimpse of their plans for the Web when they censored a Pearl Jam performance that didn't meet their standard of "Internet freedom."

Pearl Jam: Seen But Not Heard
During the live Lollapalooza Webcast of a concert by the Seattle-based super-group, the telco giant muted lead singer Eddie Vedder just as he launched into a lyric against President George Bush. The lines -- "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home" were somehow lost in the mix.

"What happened to us this weekend was a wake up call, and it's about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band," Pearl Jam band members stated after the incident in a release that urged people to take action.

Indeed. AT&T routinely rails against Net Neutrality as a "solution without a problem." They say Net Neutrality regulations aren't necessary because they wouldn't dare interfere with online content. At the same time they tout plans to become gatekeepers to the Web with public relations bromides about "shaping" Web traffic to better serve the needs of an evolving Internet.

Such spin needs to be held up to the light of experience. AT&T's history of breaking trust with their customers includes handing over private phone records to the government, promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town, pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans with the likes of Cisco, Viacom, RIAA and MPA to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic.

The moral of this story is never trust AT&T at their word. The company acts in bad faith toward the public interest and will do whatever it can get away with to pad its bottom line -- including sacrificing the freedoms its users have to choose where they go, what they watch and whom they listen to online.

The Future of Music Coalition have done great work to mobilize hundreds of rock bands against such censorship but it's a threat that concerns everyone.

AT&T's vision of a better Internet -- "Your World Delivered" -- is not one that is shared by the more than 1.5 million people who have spoken out in favor of a neutral, affordable and accessible Internet for everyone. For us, the Internet isn't about one company delivering our world. It's about simply offering a high-speed connection at competitive and reasonable rates -- and then getting out of our way.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The FCC Closes a Window to an Open Internet

Too often in the give and take of media policymaking it's government officials that are giving, corporate giants that are taking, and the public that's left with little in the exchange.

This was the case yesterday as the Federal Communications Commission decided to sell off licenses to an invaluable chunk of public airwaves with few conditions to ensure that Americans gain from the deal.


FCC Commissioners

The spectrum in question -- the 700 MHz band – will be returned to Americans after TV broadcasters shift from an analog (and spectrum hogging) format to a more compressed digital signal.

Closing the Gap

These airwaves represent our last best chance to connect tens of millions of Americans to an open and affordable Internet. They can carry a wireless Internet signal through concrete buildings and over mountains – a signal that can single-handedly close the digital divide for people in both rural and urban America who are now being bypassed by the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.

With the agency’s decision, however, it’s more likely that this same phone and cable cartel will use their political and financial muscle to control wireless Internet access in the country. The same companies already dictate “wired” broadband access for more than 96% of residential users.

These politically-connected corporations don’t see this new spectrum as a chance to blow open the marketplace. Rather they’ll squander it to protect the status quo – an Internet business model where Americans pay them higher prices for slower speeds compared to access in many Western European and Asian countries.

Open the Network, Unleashing Competition

Had the FCC opted to attach open conditions to these airwaves, the agency would have unleashed the creative forces of the marketplace onto an Internet that is now suffocating under the weight of a few cozy providers.

More than a quarter-million citizens filed comments to the FCC urging the agency to inject such broadband competition into the marketplace by creating a so-called “third pipe,” a national wireless Internet network to compete head-to-head with DSL and cable.

A proposal put before the agency by public advocates, consumer organizations and technology companies would have helped make this "third pipe" a reality. Their solution: create one nationwide wireless Internet license that would be offered to new competitors on a wholesale basis – a model known as "open access" that has proven immensely successful for European nations.

Repercussions from a Bad Decision

In America, open access would pry open the market to new businesses, start ups, entrepreneurs and providers, spurring competition and innovation while driving down costs to the consumer. It would be a boon for the mobile Internet, at a time when a flurry of new devices such as the iPhone are coming available to users.

Instead the FCC chose a course that will keep us behind the pace of countries that have embraced open networks.

Our last, best chance to propel us into an era of Internet innovation and creativity was squandered by an agency that too often confuses corporate welfare with public service.

The FCC decision should be a call to arms for consumer advocates, public interest groups, Internet entrepreneurs and concerned citizens across the country. Unless we amplify calls for true open access, the repercussions of this sell off of the airwaves will be felt for generations to come.