For instance, the companies could commit to increasing the number of local reporters at either the TV station or newspaper—or provide significant financial assistance to an independent local nonprofit news outlet. And if a TV station makes concrete promises and then reneges, it could have its license renewed for a shorter duration, or the parent company could be penalized during future waiver requests.
Or, better yet, here’s my modest proposal: Congress could consider something bolder and cleaner. It could loosen the rules on media mergers—but require a substantial transaction fee for each merger, with the proceeds going to fund local journalism in that community.
Each time there is a consolidation, the participating companies would donate money to a local endowment supporting successful nonprofit or independent news providers. Throughout the country—from MinnPost in Minneapolis to The Lens in New Orleans—citizens and entrepreneurs have created digital news organizations to make up for the losses in civically important but financially dubious reporting. Local minority-owned media startups have faced the same difficulties in generating revenue and could benefit from such an idea as well. Here’s a way for the lumbering media giants to help them—even as they help themselves.
Under this scenario, companies would not have to make a case that their merger would help the community. If the economics dictate that they invest more in news, great. But if they don’t, the community will still end up better off for the merger because of the journalism being underwritten by the transaction fee.
Yes, it would add to the cost of the acquisition. But the parties would know exactly what that amount is on the front end, build it into the cost-benefit calculus (and the offer price), and decide whether it still makes sense. This is a far more market-oriented approach than past media policies. If the transaction fee deters the merger, fine. It might have the side effect of preventing mergers with weak economic rationales. But if the parties proceed, they would be helping to subsidize the local media market.
There are many practical details to work out. How could you make sure that this money is spent well? One thought: the merging companies would present a plan proving that there’s a non-partisan mechanism in place in that community that could manage a fund. My guess is that local journalism schools could often play a key role (and, no, Columbia isn’t paying me to say that). Often skilled at creating competitions for journalism awards, some locally based schools could manage the process for distributing funds, perhaps through competitive grants or through a matching system that would reward nonprofit media that has successfully raised funds from other sources.
Crucially, once the check is deposited in the fund—ideally creating an endowment that would continue subsidizing community journalism indefinitely—neither the government nor the media companies should have any say in how that money is distributed.
There’s a limit to how much consolidation should be allowed even with this tollbooth approach. And there are no doubt flaws to this community-investment idea as well. The most important thing right now is that rather than reverting to an antiquated debate about consolidation, we have an honest discussion about what would truly benefit communities.