An open letter to the board of the Tribune Company

Posted by Mitchell - February 5, 2007 (entry 520)

To members of the board of the Tribune Company:

My name is Mitchell Szczepanczyk. I live in Chicago and I work as a professional software developer. But one hobby of mine is the politics of your very industry -- the media. I've had the good fortune to worked with many others, both locally in a group I'm involved with, Chicago Media Action (CMA), and nationally across the country with many like-minded individuals.

I'm writing today to express my thoughts about the matter of your current ownership circumstances and whether or not the Tribune Company (if it stays in one piece) remains a Chicago-based institution, owned by a local and trusted party, and responsive to the needs and concerns of Chicagoans.

In many ways I've been working on this very issue for almost five years now. At this point, let me make a tangent here of sorts, but you'll see the relevance momentarily. I'd like to discuss the Federal Communications Commission and its controversial series of media ownership rules and the inevitable resulting media gigantism, where fewer and fewer media companies own more and more media outlets.

Before 2003, Tribune and most other Big Media outlets were lobbying hard at the FCC to have the remaining media ownership rules removed, particularly the cross-ownership rule which prevents a company from owning a newspaper and a TV station in a single city (at least theoretically; Tribune is violating this rule as I write this in four different cities nationally, but I digress).

There was little public awareness of what was transpiring, precisely because (as public opinion surveys would confirm) that the more people grew aware of what was happening, the more they would disagree with the matter and act to change it.

Chicago Media Action, from its founding in 2002, has worked on the issue of the FCC's media ownership rules, among many media-related issues. And CMA's main tactic was, and remains, to spread the word about the issue as widely as possible, and to join with others doing likewise to amplify our aggregate voice.

And it worked. The FCC vote to change the ownership rules was overturned by Congressional action and blocked by an emergency court order and subsequent lawsuit. The judges who issued that court order acknowledged that "a million people" (and later 3 million) wrote to the FCC to complain. "And that's the basis on which they granted the stay," to quote one of the attorneys who won the court order. But how did millions find out when the media stood mum with a vested interest in the outcome? Because of CMA and others around Chicago and across the country worked to make it an issue when the media didn't.

How does all this pertain to the Tribune in the here and now? I believe the Tribune relied (perhaps overly relied) on those ownership rules for its long-term growth strategy, and when it didn't get those rule changes, the Tribune got stuck. Yes, the FCC is currently revisiting the issue of media ownership rules and may eventually grant the media ownership changes years from now, but investors can only be so patient.

Indeed, in the past year or so, we've seen a slight trend of de-concentration of media ownership, as evidenced by Viacom splitting into two companies, and Clear Channel divesting a serious portion of its radio stations. Now, perhaps, the Tribune may follow suit and get broken up into a million little pieces (with no apologies to James Frey).

It's ironic: As the Tribune gobbled up local media outlets nationwide and gained the potential to affect the local focus of those local media outlets, so the Tribune may see itself likewise get gobbled up, or dismembered entirely. In either case, I see it entirely possible that the Tribune (or its successors) may lose the Chicago-oriented media focus it so longed drew as a source of local pride.

So should those of us active in critical media politics share any blame if a local and trusted company take ownership of the Tribune or its successor companies? Certainly not. There's no assurance that we would not find ourselves in the same boat if we hadn't blocked the FCC's media ownership rules. Moreover, are we to blame for the presence of rapacious equity capital firms or even the very eat-or-be-eaten nature of market capitalism? Again, certainly not.

But that doesn't mean that I'm exempt from the responsibility of doing everything I can to improve the situation with what I can with what I have where I am.

So as a concerned citizen, a longtime resident of Chicago, and as someone active in the political economy of Chicago's media and nationally, I ask the Tribune Company the following:

(1) Should the Tribune Company remain as a single entity for the most part, Tribune should choose as its parent or a local institution committed to serving the Chicago area in all its rich diversity.

(2) Should the Tribune Company divest all or part of its holdings, I would ask the Tribune to ensure that its properties be sold to successor institutions that would each maintain a commitment to local service for the respective media in their respective regions.

There are much greater issues that are touched on by the many points I raise in this letter, and I can address those in greater depth if you would like. But I hope this letter proves sufficient. I thank you for your consideration, and let me know if you have any further questions or would like elaboration on any points raised here.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk

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