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Sturm Makes Case for Lifting Cross-Ownership Ban

The head of the association representing daily newspapers said the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban no longer makes sense and took issue with statements by Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, who told senators at a hearing earlier this week that the newspaper business model is not broken and that the fiscal problems for big media companies come from just trying to meet inflated profit margins. Blethen opposed lifting the ban.

In an interview about media ownership for C-SPAN's The Communicators, John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said Blethen -- whom, he said, was not a member of the NAA -- might have his own motives for making the case against lifting the ban, adding that Blethen may be concerned about competition from the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a TV or radio station in the market.

Sturm said the issue is not about profit margins, which, he conceded, aren't what they used to be. "Deregulation doesn't depend on margins or financial difficulties," he added. "A rule that was built for 1975 cannot be sustained in 2007," given the changes in the competitive landscape.

The Federal Communications Commission in 1975 banned cross-ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers in the same market, with a large number of grandfathered combinations allowed to remain. Sturm said there are about 40 of those grandfathered combinations still around to illustrate the quality and amount of newsgathering from such combinations.

After filing 12 sets of comments, the American Society of Newspaper Editors is ready for the FCC to decide an issue that has been under review for a decade, Sturm added.

Sturm said the ban has been studied "six ways to Sunday," and the analysis boils down to this: TV and radio stations owned by newspapers do more and better local news than any of the other stations in the market. "It is as simple as that," he added.

Sturm called the ban a barrier to the public receiving better news when and where and how they want it.

Responding to comments from FCC commissioner Michael Copps on last week's Communicators that the FCC should look into Rupert Murdoch's purchase of The Wall Street Journal, Sturm pointed out that the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban applies to local newspapers, not national newspapers, adding, "With all due respect, it isn't the Federal Newspaper Commission."

FCC chairman Kevin Martin has said that the ban is no longer necessary, as has a federal court. Martin is trying to vote on media-ownership rule changes by the end of the year, almost certainly including modifying or lifting the ban. But powerful Democratic legislators are trying to slow down a vote.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.