Nonprofit News and the Comcast/NBC Merger

Comcast’s promise to support local nonprofit journalism organizations looks good at first glance. These new news startups are filling the gaps left by commercial media, and they need more resources.

But let’s be clear: This gesture is no reason to approve Comcast’s takeover of NBC-Universal.

One of the key concerns with the pending mega-merger is what it will mean for one company to control a community’s access to news and information online, on cable, and on broadcast stations. In eleven cities around the country, where Comcast is already the dominant cable company and Internet service provider, it’s poised to swallow up their local NBC and Telemundo broadcast stations, too.

To placate policymaker’s concerns, Comcast has been making a series of promises regarding their commitment to local news. At first it promised to preserve and maintain the status quo of news on NBC stations. Then it promised to increase news and public affairs programming by 1,000 additional hours a year (which works out to only an extra 16 minutes per day, per station). Now Comcast is promising to forge partnerships between NBC stations and local nonprofit news sites.

In its December 23 letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Comcast specifically highlighted the partnership between Voice of San Diego (VOSD) and KNSD, San Diego’s NBC station. Comcast suggested that after the merger they would support similar partnerships in at least five cities for three years. This commitment has been heralded by some as an exciting new opportunity for nonprofit news at a time when many of these innovative projects are seeking sustainability.

Promises Are Made to Be Broken

As I have studied journalism collaborations, I have watched the VOSD/NBC partnership carefully and believe they have set up a productive collaboration that is serving San Diego well. But I think it is vital to unpack Comcast’s promise and take a hard look at what this really might mean for local news.

First, it must be said, that this is just a promise, and that if the history of media mergers is instructive, many pre-merger promises are not followed through on once the deals are approved. For example, in 2002 when NBCU was trying to buy Telemundo, it promised to expand local Spanish language news programming; but once the merger was approved, NBCU laid off 700 Telemundo employees and eliminated local newscasts at Telemundo stations in Houston, Dallas, Denver, San Jose and Phoenix, replacing them with a single “hubbed” newscast out of Fort Worth, Texas. Some of these same cities are now facing the prospect of a Comcast local media monopoly, and Comcast has not made one commitment to invest in Spanish language news and public affairs.

In fact, Comcast has a long history of opposing and obstructing local journalism efforts at public access and community television stations. As part of the agreements that give cable companies local monopolies, companies like Comcast are supposed to provide channels and support for public, educational and government access stations. For example, in Philadelphia, Comcast’s home town, the cable giant blocked the establishment of local community TV stations for decades. Given this history, Comcast’s sudden commitment to nonprofit news seems suspect.

Doing the Math

As noted above, Comcast’s past promise to provide an additional 1,000 hours of news and public affairs doesn’t add up to much. It is unclear whether this new commitment to work with nonprofit news organizations is an add-on or will be counted against that minor increase in news programming.

Either way, Comcast has only promised support for three years and it has taken VOSD roughly five years to build the collaborative relationship with KNSD. Collaborations are hard work and take immense time, energy and trust. Comcast’s assertion that “within 12 months of the closing of the transaction, at least half of the 10 owned-and-operated NBC stations will have in place cooperative arrangements with locally focused non-profit news organizations” will not simply make it so. In addition, based on the VOSD example, these partnerships will not mean an end to fundraising concerns for local nonprofit news sites. VOSD has a number of partners in addition to NBC, and they envision these “content services” making up a total of just 10 percent of their revenue. Clearly these partnerships provide important financial support and help distribute VOSD reporting to a broader audience, but we should not mistake Comcast’s promise to launch five more collaborations as a boon for local news — or a fair trade for the cutbacks and diminishing competition we’re sure to see.

Note too that Comcast did not actually commit to broadcasting any news produced through the collaboration. In its letter, Comcast writes that NBC and its stations will not be “obligated to broadcast, publish on a NBCU-controlled website, or otherwise exhibit or endorse any material produced by an Online News Partner.”

Localism, Diversity and the Public Interest

In making the case for this new strategy, Comcast tried to appeal to the core mission of the FCC, which is to foster and promote localism, diversity and the public interest. Comcast argues that “cooperative arrangements such as this advance the commission’s interest in ensuring that all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information.”

But how does outsourcing an NBC station’s news production to a local nonprofit help expand the diversity of voices and viewpoints in local media? When the FCC grants a company a broadcast license (for free, mind you) that company enters a deal with the American public and commits to serve the public interest. Most broadcast stations have abdicated that responsibility, gutting their newsrooms and watering down the evening news to nearly nothing.

In fact, many journalism start-ups like Voice of San Diego explicitly point to the failings of commercial media as the impetus for their work. The fact that Comcast has honed in on the Voice of San Diego partnership with its local NBC station highlights how vital these independent nonprofit online newsrooms are becoming. To be clear, I spend my days working to find new ways to support quality local news and investigative journalism, and I’m eager to identify new funding streams. However, those of us concerned about the future of news need to stand up against further media consolidation while fighting to make space for new ventures.

There is no way to sugar-coat it: This merger is a disaster. Allowing Comcast to takeover NBC is an endorsement of a troubling new kind of media merger and paves the way for higher prices, fewer choices and more consolidation. The last minute promises Comcast is dolling out do little to address the damage that will be done.

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