Gothamist’s Potential Purchase…And Why The TelComm Act of ’96 MattersPosted: March 22, 2010
Good friend Tom Bridge passed along news on We Love DC (disclosure: a site I also contribute to on occasion) on yet-to-be-confirmed report that the Gothamist network – a collection of city blogs around North America, including DCist here in Washington – is being acquired for $5-6m by a Cablevision subsidiary, Rainbow Media. The New York based cable company has been in the news recently for its spat with ABC/Disney, but its also connected to several print pubs and distributors, including Long Island’s Newsday.
This news is still yet to be confirmed, and we’re waiting on the final word one way or the other. I won’t focus on Gothamist being bought, especially since it’s still not final at 6:00 p.m. on Monday. But, since it’s interesting to think about, let’s just imagine what could happen and pull in some history.
Take a step back to 1996. 14 years ago, the radio industry was very deeply aligned by the Federal Communications Commission. A single owner could only have one station per band (AM/FM) per DMA market, and was limited to 20 AM and 20 FM overall as late as 1994. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was made law, it changed the limits completely. Nationwide caps were removed, and the market levels were greatly affected, as noted by the below chart from the 2002 report by the Future of Music Coalition:
That was a HUGE shift in the make-up of radio ownership. It changed the ways small time owners could get into the game (i.e., made the entry barrier ridiculously high), and it centered ownership around the limited space of bandwidth available.
The result was much bigger than just bandwidth competition. It was a recording studio hierarchy and advertising dollar limitation. There was instantly a KISS station in almost every market and carbon copy news and format programming throughout the country. Promoters could go top-down and cover a wide base of targeted demos with less investment. The Clear Channels of the world had an immediate advantage across markets – and not just because of the number of stations they had on the dial.
This iteration of local media would be a dangerous thing for the regional blog markets to mirror, especially if its only initially dominated by one key player without any competition. It’s not a perfect analogy, as a commenter on Tom’s post called out, because of the bandwidth issue. But it certainly starts building a hierarchy of non-professional civic journalism that redefines the mentality of these types of networks.
The gut example here could be ESPN.com’s local city-by-city efforts, stealing bloggers and/or talent from local newspapers, but that’s not perfect because it’s bringing it in house with clearer cross-promotion and content for its parent. The better scenario may be SBNation – which provides a single platform for seemingly numerous team or college focused athletics blogs. The network handles and wrangles the advertisers, and the networked blogger has the option to let the ownership handle the deals, they just benefit. Those outside its umbrella with more organically-owned blogs must then fight for sustainable capital and attention – a potentially low reward scenario.
Don’t overlook the journalism aspect here, either. Less voices and contributors goes against the citizen journalism era that blogs helped invigorate. Becoming a publisher is still incredibly simple in the online world, technologically, for one, and then if you’re writing about your neighborhood, it’s really easy to be an expert. With an overpowering body in town – pretty much the first mover in most news, one would imagine – it’s less satiable to turn the hobby into active, civic research that provides a broader value.
The Internet provides a universal bandwidth compared to radio, I’ve conceded that point already. But with less interest for advertisers or media relations people to deal with a collection of bloggers who aren’t looking to become professional, but still finding an ample avenue, it is a detriment. It will reduce the sphere to two tiers: top blogs within the network and the a broader, but shallower, weekend journalists.
To regulate this blogging media would be a waste, as well, and I’d never in a world imagine that being possible. Don’t try counting blogs owned by one group, by type, or any way whatsoever. Still, the part-time bloggers of the world need to not be afraid of any impending shadow of monolithic networks. That’s the only way this citizen journalism can continue to provide the value it does.