Since the FCC doesn’t track them, most of what we know about joint-services agreements comes from those University of Delaware studies—information painstakingly gathered from news reports and surveys of stations by a professor, Danilo Yanich. After the Hawaii deal went into effect, Yanich and his intrepid students compared the content of the news aired by the three stations involved before and after the agreement. He found that the quantity of unique story topics on each station dropped sharply, while the amount of shared subject matter—meaning coverage of the same story, such as a crime at a particular address—more than doubled. During a weeklong period before the deal, the three stations ran 53 stories on topics addressed exclusively on one station and 76 stories on topics that were addressed by more than one station. During a similar period after the agreement, the stations ran only 19 stories on a topic covered exclusively by one station, and 157 on topics covered by multiple stations. (It is worth noting, however, that the total number of stories on the stations increased after the deal.)

Another study by Yanich of eight joint-services agreements in markets across the country found similar results. Among the stories with shared content on the partnering stations, most had the same scripts, the same video, or both.

A right to know

Just as the FCC does not track joint-services agreements, it has declined to conduct research into them. At one point, when it was commissioning research for its (still unfinished) 2010 quadrennial review of media ownership rules, the commission ordered studies be conducted on 11 ownership-related topics to inform its new rules, and commissioner Copps pressed for the research to consider joint-services agreements.

But he lost that round. A former FCC staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, said that during the process the NAB lobbied heavily to prevent joint-services agreements from being addressed. “They were very adamant that we not include it as part of the quadrennial review in terms of ownership,” the staffer said. (The FCC declined to comment for this story.)

President Obama has nominated Tom Wheeler—a campaign bundler and former lobbyist for cable television companies—to become the commission’s next chairman. The FCC is unlikely to take action on ownership rules before Wheeler’s confirmation, which is expected to be approved but as of press time is pending before the Senate.

Meanwhile, the agency’s passivity on joint-services agreements has begun to attract some attention. In June, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, released an open letter to the Government Accountability Office, urging it to examine whether the agreements violate ownership limits. The letter also calls on the gao to examine whether the FCC could begin requiring public disclosure of the deals.

To some, the lack of information about joint-services agreements is the worst part. “I think people should be concerned about the lack of information,” said Steve Waldman, a former FCC adviser. “The public has a right to know much more about these arrangements.”

Waldman supports the idea of joint-services agreements in some situations. But, he said, the lack of information about them makes it impossible to determine which agreements reflect sensible attempts at efficiency, and which are driven by cost cutting and outsourcing. “The promise of shared services agreements is that we’ll use shared services to eliminate duplicate investment, and then we’ll invest them in investigative reporting and boots on the ground,” he said. “And that isn’t what happened. It’s evolved in some cases into outsourcing the news.”

 

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.