NewsMorphosis Redux: August 25, 2011

Remarks by Chris Conybeare

Whether the reporting and commentary by Hawaii's news media is properly reaching and informing the public

I've been asked by the organizers of this event to choose one word that sums up my presentation. In the spirit of NewsMorphosis, my word is: Monopo-Awfulus!

Awful monopoly forces are at work in our community!

Concentration of ownership and control over our news media has resulted in massive layoffs, with fewer people to collect, analyze, and distribute information. We have also lost independent editorial perspectives with the closing of one TV newsroom, by Raycom Media, and the simulcast of Hawaii News Now, and the closing of one print news room with the merger of the Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser, resulting in the Star-Advertiser. In sort, less is less!

Democracy needs an informed public!

Democracy requires that people vote, and to vote they need to be informed. Since we have a diverse society, we are better served by diversity of viewpoints. With the shuttering of 2 major newsrooms, we lose diversity of opinion.

We are also concerned about the partnership between the monopoly newspaper and the monopoly broadcaster because this could lead to further loss of editorial independence and further homogenization of information. Since broadcast television is still the public's primary source of news, I will focus the rest of my 5 minutes on television news.

The Media Council Hawaii (MCH) and its allies are challenging the takeover of TV stations KHNL, KGMB, and KFVE by Raycom Media of Alabama. We are fighting to save a scarce public resource, one that is vital to our democracy and the means of acquiring information.

I'm referring to the publicly owned airwaves, the electromagnetic spectrum, which is the way by which all telecommunications operate. We say that the Shared Services Agreement that has resulted in Hawaii News Now violates FCC ownership rules that were designed to promote diversity, competition, and localism. We were told that the SSA was necessitated by economic factors and that the combined news room would better serve the public.

However, an independent study by the University of Delaware (Professor Yanich) and filed with the FCC's Quadrennial Review Docket, says otherwise. It concludes that:

  • The SSA has led to reduction of the quality of local news. For example, the number of stories devoted to public issues dropped significantly post-SSA for stations involved in the agreement and the median length of stories covering public issues fell.
  • The stories in which a news crew actually goes to the scene of the story to both shoot video and investigate to create a package presentation has been cut in half by the SSA stations in favor of an anchor voice over video from the scene.
  • Because of the trend, stories are shorter and less extensive. The "hypothetical" benefit that the SSA would provide more enterprising news content has not materialized.
  • The simulcast of news is itself a problem in that one editorial voice and one independent news room has been lost.
  • The study also tends to support the idea that the SSA has had negative impacts on other broadcast television news, as other stations copied many aspects of the Hawaii News Now approach.

There is also an FCC study that shows that non-local broadcast ownership produces far less local news than locally owned stations.

None of this should be taken as individual criticism of local journalists. Many of those remaining continue to perform with distinction. There is a proven link, however, between forms of ownership and the production of quality news and information that are required by a democracy. Look at the Murdoch monopoly model as it was recently revealed in the News Corp, phone-hacking scandal.

We have other options today to acquire information.

Besides print and broadcast media, we have cable (in Hawaii controlled by the Time Warner monopoly) and the Internet, with its many facets: online news, search engines, blogs, social network sites, data bases, and the like.

So while we continue to fight forces of Awful Monopoly, we celebrate the great developments in online news, such as Civil Beat, the Hawaii Independent, and new initiatives by the Hawaii Reporter. Other good sources of information are provided by Hawaii Public Radio and PBS Hawaii. There is also great potential for Community Television. While all these are promising, their combined reach does not equal that of news sources under monopoly control.

So here is an option: in 2014/2015, broadcast licenses in our market wil be up for renewal and challenge, and this opens the possibility of community take-back of broadcast news.

In fact, MCH is exploring the concept of a community owned commercial license, using the concept developed by Green Bay Wisconsin whereby funds were raised by sale of shares to the community to permit purchase of the Green Bay Packers!

Make no mistake - Monopo-Awfulness is not supportive of democracy.

We must continue our work to restore diversity, localism and competition in our sources of news and opinion. Our democracy depends on it!