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Editorial: A Golden Future?

National Public Radio last week launched Argo, its pilot project creating Websites that aggregate local and national news according to various themes. With some money from the government and the ubiquitous Knight Foundation, the sites will provide a common and collaborative platform for audio, video and print stories on topics from the military and education to public safety, immigration and health.

Why is a magazine chiefly concerned with TV putting so bright a spotlight on a radio initiative? Because the Web has narrowed the distances between media, and labels such as “radio” and “TV” are being outgrown by the vaunted and vital “multi-platform.”

It may say “NPR” in the upper right-hand corner of each Web page, but to a Web surfer, the difference between a multimedia news site run by a public radio organization and one run by a local commercial TV or radio station is zip. They are all competing for eyeballs online— though commercial broadcasters have the added impetus of competing for ad dollars so they can stay in business, lacking their own government grants.

The FCC continues to review its ownership rules to decide which ones continue to be in the public interest or how they might be changed or excised in the face of a changing marketplace.

Broadcasters have continued to push the FCC to allow them the flexibility to combine operations with local newspapers in smaller markets. This type of multi-platform approach would help them compete with innovative new projects such as Argo or countlesss blogs, competing station news sites, regional cable news networks or, well, you get the point.

In Argo, stations work off a common Web platform and with common tools, sharing stories among themselves and with third parties. Each collaborative site runs out of a single station but combines the talents and resources of a number of platforms, including

That is the world broadcasters must compete in, but it is currently a world where a TV station in a smaller market can’t join its financial assets with a newspaper unless it jumps through regulatory hoops, using up time and resources it may not have with no guarantee of success. Not even a serious-minded regulator with too-tight shoes could keep a straight face at the suggestion that local TV and radio markets, even small ones, don’t have a host of outlets for national, and, yes, local news.

NPR is combining its assets to create “a new online journalism venture to produce in-depth, local coverage on subjects critical to communities and the nation.” That is what local commercial stations are succeeding in doing all over the country.

The FCC has staked out as its main mission getting broadband to everyone, at which point it will have no argument against loosening broadcast regs tied to another century. The commission is also preparing a report based on its investigation into the future of journalism. There, too, the FCC should recognize that freeing broadcasters for more multi-platform collaborations in small markets is a no-brainer. And, no, the fact that the TV ad market has picked up is not a sign that everything is fine.

NPR’s Argo project is named for the ship that carried Jason and his heroic band in search of the Golden Fleece. NPR’s project is also an effort by an intrepid band to secure a difficult goal: relevant local and national news in whatever form serves and engages the public. Commercial broadcasters share that goal and the challenges that go with it.

Jason did eventually succeed, but according to one version of the myth, he had to harness a pair of fire-breathing bulls with brass feet to plow a field, and sow it with dragon’s teeth that would sprout into warriors.

In today’s news economy, few journalists would argue that analogy misses the mark by much. The FCC could join that band of heroes by allowing broadcasters more freedom to steer their own course.