Big Media Myopia

It's hard to empathize with struggling newspapers when those running them continue to suffer from the short-sightedness that got their industry into a mess.
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It's hard to empathize with struggling newspapers when those running them continue to suffer from the short-sightedness that got their industry into a mess.

The editors at the Washington Post put on a display of such backward thinking on Saturday, when they published an op-ed by two lawyers from the influential D.C. firm Baker Hostetler.

In writing this op-ed, the lawyers hide certain conflicts of interest that should weigh heavily against their analysis. The Post 's editors might have connected the dots for readers, but didn't.

But the piece is just so stunningly stupid that it falls apart all by itself. In it, Esq. Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown call for reactionary legal measures that would stifle access to news and information and return us to the grand old days of consolidated ownership, bloated media giants and information gatekeepers.

To save journalism, Brown and Sanford argue, we must "eliminate ownership restrictions" and open floodgates to a new wave of media concentration.

We should also "grant an antitrust exemption" for consolidated media, allowing them to join together and wall off content from users. "Antitrust immunity is necessary because most individual news sites can't go it alone," they explain in the op-ed. "Readers will simply jump to sites that are still free."

They urge readers to support more stringent copyright restrictions that would bar bloggers, Web sites and all others from the online sharing of even a small portion of mainstream media news content.

Nowhere in this silliness do they see the consolidation and walling off of news for what it is: more the real culprit in the demise of newspapers than is their favorite bogeyman -- the free flowing Internet.

We have nearly survived an era of media mergers that shackled newspapers with massive amounts of debt and high shareholder expectations. Look no further than real estate magnate Sam Zell, who in 2007 purchased the Tribune Company using financial contortions and shifting debt structures that made heads spin among even the most seasoned bean counters.

Zell is not alone. Media consolidation over the last 20 years has been typified by leveraged deals and unserviceable debts.

But consider this. Just a few years ago, the average profit margin for newspapers was 20 percent -- with some raking in twice as much or more.

"Did they use these astronomical profits to invest in the quality of their products or to innovate for the future?" asked Free Press' Craig Aaron on Thursday. "No. They just bought up more newspapers and TV stations." (On May 12 Free Press released a National Journalism Strategy that outlines forward-thinking policies to save journalism, and not merely prop up the creaking old guard.)

This debt-loaded structure began to implode as their monopolies over local advertising revenue were undercut by Internet upstarts such as Craigslist and Google News.

The recent economic downturn was the final straw. And the aftermath has been dire -- at least for journalists. By one count, 24,000 journalism jobs have been lost since 2008. Foreign, Washington and statehouse bureaus have been shuttered. Major news organizations are in bankruptcy. Others, like the Rocky Mountain News, have closed their doors for good. Newspaper circulation is nose-diving. The Seattle Post Intelligencer and Tuscon Citizen have shed their print operations opting (far too late) to take exclusively to the Web.

In Saturday's Post op-ed, both Brown and Sanford are nostalgic for the corporate media oligarchs that predated the Internet. This fantasy is so far removed from the contours of today's media landscape that it's easy to dismiss these two lawyers as ancient barristers who rely on secretaries to print and hand deliver their email.

They aren't. And that is what's disturbing about this article.

Undisclosed by neither Brown and Sanford nor the Washington Post is the A-list of corporate media clients represented by the authors.

Here's what I found from quick scan of the Baker Hostetler Web site: Sanford has been counsel in cases representing publishers E.W. Scripps Co, Tribune Co., the Hearst Corporation, Random House, Simon & Schuster and Bertelsmann, A.G. He also represents consolidated broadcasters Clear Channel Communications, ABC/Disney, NBC, Fox Television as well as AOL/Time Warner. Brown has represented Scripps Howard Broadcasting Co. and the New York Times.

This list is not complete. (I encourage people to use the comment thread to add new names of the firm's mainstream media clients.)

As far as I can tell the Post doesn't seek counsel from Baker Hostetler. But that doesn't preclude the paper's publishers from benefiting from Brown and Sanford's myopia.

That these two lawyers have sold themselves out to corporate media seems no surprise in a city of lobbyists and snake oil. What's disturbing is the lengths to which the Washington Post will go to promote such swill without full disclosure to readers.

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