CHAPEL HILL — A panel of media owners, experts and lobbyists discussed the state of print and broadcast journalism in North Carolina and beyond Wednesday night at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The panel, “The FCC, Media Ownership and the Tar Heel State,” expressed wide-ranging opinions about what lies ahead, but none were so dire about the future as Michael J. Copps, who served on the Federal Communications Commission for two terms.
“Our challenge is to reinvigorate American journalism when we’re at a point now when not even its continued existence is guaranteed,” Copps said.
“Thousands of journalists are walking the streets searching for a job rather than pounding the pavement searching for a story,” he added.
One of the problems, Copps believes, is the rapid consolidation of media ownership. In his time at the FCC, Copps said, it sometimes felt like all he did was “look at merger proposals and transaction proposals.”
“Why we were spending so much time on it, I don’t know,” Copps said, “It was pretty much a slam dunk the commission was going to approve them most of the time.”
Penny Abernathy, a professor at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said another problem is who buys out the newspapers.
“In 2006, we had four large papers in the state, each owned by a different chain,” she said. “Today, we have two chains owning more than 40 percent of the circulation,” referring to The McClatchy Co. and Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s conglomerate that owns several media properties. McClatchy owns both The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer.
“It’s the same thing on a community newspaper level,” Abernathy said. “We have 2 million in circulation of community newspapers – those are the ones that publish less than daily – and only a third of those are now independent.”
Separation of newspapers, broadcasters
Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co., emphasized his belief in keeping newspapers and broadcasting companies separate.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that if you combine the newspaper with broadcast, you lose a significant voice” in the community, Goodmon said, referring to community papers.
Orage Quarles III, president and publisher of The News & Observer, said that depends on the owner.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that would argue that (Rupert) Murdoch has not done a great job with the Wall Street Journal,” Quarles said. “He has improved the Wall Street Journal.
“How was he able to do that? Because he had all the broadcasts on that side of the business that helped him support the print side,” Quarles said.
Copps said people should also be concerned by the rapidly shrinking journalists corps.
“In Washington, D.C., covering Congress, 27 states do not have a reporter accredited to Capitol Hill anymore,” Copps said. “How do you hold the powerful accountable if you’re in a situation like that?”
Room to survive
Quarles said the loss of revenue from classified ads has been the biggest financial hit to some newspapers.
“The newspaper industry knew at some point classifieds were going to go away. They knew that,” Quarles said. “What they didn’t know was when they went, they would go as fast as they did.”
But some, like The New York Times, Quarles said, have successfully moved the focus to subscription-based revenue, improving their outlook.
“The fourth quarter of last year, their circulation revenue was greater than their advertising,” he said. “First time ever.”
“There’s plenty of room to survive, but you got to figure out your model,” Quarles said.