standard Idea Lab: How a Time-Warner Comcast Merger Could Rescue Journalism

Comcast Time Warner

Comcast Time Warner (Wikimedia Commons)

A porposed $45 billion merger of two television broadcast and internet broadband giants, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, has set off controversy regarding high subscription rates for users and monopoly / antitrust concerns. Since the announcement in April, the two companies are currently in the process of obtaining permission from both the FCC and United States Department of Justice to complete the acquisition.

The ultimate fate of the merger is unclear, but less discussed is how such a merger might save local news and investigative journalism.

The Current Journalism Crisis

The past decade and a half has not been kind to local journalism coverage. Established local media outlets are retrenching, and attempts by hyper-local news companies like Patch.com—despite a bold effort with sites across the country—have now failed. Yet the need (and desire) for substantive local news and invesitgative endures. The problem is that digital advertising pays paltry sums, and rates are only dwindling further. This revenue alone is an improbable formula to produce quality reporting while ensuring even a modicum of profitability.

Prior to the internet, print publications required newsstand purchase (or a subscription), and advertising rates within them were much better. But as the public increasingly embraces the convenience of digital journalism without understanding its ramifications, we are drifting away from this once-reliable format, and the formula for solvent and sustainable local coverage seems increasingly broken.

Legal Notices

Legal Notices: Newspapers’ Last Stand

With the evaporation of classified advertising from local media outlets to places like Craigslist, most remaining print publications, like daily or weekly newspapers, can still just barely survive through “legal notices.” Little-known or understood by the public (despite being the intended audience), “legals” are public notices that companies and parties to litigation are required to place in print publications (at a significant fee) to advise the public of their activities. The supposed premise for this requirement is that anyone involved, at issue, or interested in the matter “noticed” can be aware of same, and take action, like showing up in Court on a particular date or serving a newly formed business entity with legal papers.

“Legals” are lucrative enough to keep the show running in the case of many print publications, which then also put their journalism online for the public, where it gains little to no additional revenue (but interesting stories, though this roundabout mixture, enter the conversation). But even this revenue source is facing extinction. Some cash-strapped states have elbowed into the market, while others, observing sites like My Public Notices (which already pools such notices from across the country online), are indicating a willingness to give up the print requirement and allow notices to be posted online–at much cheaper rates.

The end of “legals,” or a shift to an online-only format (predicted to take place in the next five to ten years) spells certain death for remaining print dailies and weeklies still in existence.

Solution: A “Retransmission Fee” From the Cable Giant(s)

Most consumers refuse to agree to a paywall for any of their news (the only remaining solution for viable journalism), while readily handing over sizable sums to their cable company for television and internet access. This dichotomy is frustrating, but also presents a possible solution.

Like retransmission broadcast fees for network television, the approval of the Comcast Time Warner merger could be made contingent upon a sharing of the combined company’s revenue with those that “make it go” — the myriad journalism outfits that actually produce the content that make the experience of the internet worthwhile. And instead of cajoling readers to agree to a paywall or subscription, or boosting eyeballs on the page by using teasers, misleading headlines, or social media gimmicks, journalists could focus on quality content, with a streamlined process to ensure their operations remained viable.

How Would Shared Revenue Work? (Your Input Welcome)

Here I would ask fellow journalism outfits (and perhaps even viewers) to weigh in. Immediately, I would caution that a focus on the metrics of page views and “uniques” alone would skew the media landscape into an even worse direction of the most manipulative tactics (listicles, etc.), and that some other arbiter would have to decide what makes content and content producers worthy of shared revenue.

Please feel free to weigh in by emailing me at BrooklynBriefBlog@gmail.com, by tweeting at us, or in the comments section below. If you e-mail me your logo I’ll try to include that next to your comments and input.