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I've given it a couple of days and it's still hard to work up the anger I'm supposed to feel over the arrogance of FCC chairman Kevin Martin. His critics are saying Martin, a Republican, delivered the store to Big Media Tuesday when the FCC, by a 3-to-2 party-line vote, gave single owners permission to go on running both newspapers and TV stations in the same markets, and made it easier for such arrangements to be made in the future. Said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a national advocacy group that that bitterly opposes Martin's change, "The waivers and giant loopholes contained in these new rules could spell disaster for citizens everywhere." On its Web site, Free Press has set up a form letter asking Congress to step in and "take action." With a couple of clicks, an angry citizen can tell Washington that "the FCC has turned its back on its mission and its mandate. Their decision to let Big Media get even bigger will erode localism, diminish minority ownership, and decrease competition."
But the Big Media Free Press is describing isn't the Big Media moaning and groaning here in Chicago -- among many other places. Here in Chicago the FCC vote (preceded several days earlier by a waiver intended to let Sam Zell's deal go through) lets the Tribune Company's new owners get off to a running start. "The ruling keeps our employer from having to dump several properties at fire-sale prices during a de facto media recession," allowed a grateful Tribune editorial Wednesday. That "media recession" is actually a change in the business so transformational that most journalists whose paychecks are issued by Old Media -- Big Media is, by and large, Old Media -- have no idea what that business will look like and whether it'll have a place for them in five years. The Tribune Company's biggest and most rebellious paper, the Los Angeles Times, reported Friday on the consummation of Zell's deal with a story that began: "For the second time in eight years, control of the Los Angeles Times changed hands Thursday, passing from a staid Chicago conglomerate to a private company headed by an unpredictable and colorful billionaire, in a debt-heavy deal that creates tremendous opportunities and risks for one of America's top newspapers." "Tremendous opportunities"? They hope. That whistling in the dark is a subconscious expression of faith in a colorful billionaire who doesn't sound scared of the future.
Look around. The Sun-Times is planning wholesale layoffs and could be gone in a year. Blame Conrad Black, David Radler, and RedEye if you will, but if Radler did one good thing in Chicago it was to assemble the "Chicago group" and gird the Sun-Times with a hundred smaller titles; and if the Tribune hadn't launched RedEye someone else would have, probably the Metro chain -- free rapid transit tabloids weren't a new idea. The Tribune Company, if Zell hadn't taken it over, would have continued on its path of slow, hapless decline. It might anyway.
The city's flailing mastodons aren't keeping tomorrow's journalism from being born around them. It might turn out that the only thing the FCC just did for Big Media was buy it a little more time before it bites the dust.