LONSBERRY: WXXI Purchase Of Newspaper Raises Questions

You might expect that the purchase of City Newspaper by WXXI would raise eyebrows and questions.

But it won't.

Few will notice, few will care.

The consolidation of progressive media in Rochester will quietly become the norm, and voices which sang in harmony because they had the same philosophy will continue to do so, only with better coordination, as they now will also have the same owner.

As a matter of principle, ownership of multiple media outlets in one community has typically been frowned on by society and government. If City Newspaper was a daily, for example, FCC regulations would forbid WXXI's ownership of it.

The thinking has been that when one entity owns a broadcast outlet and a newspaper in the same town that that stifles voices and may impede journalistic diversity. Differences of perspective arising from differences in ownership have been seen as a good thing, and consolidation of outlet ownership has been seen as a bad thing.

Yet this new deal will give WXXI a television station, an FM radio station, an AM radio station, a newspaper, and various online products. It also has purchased the Little Theater, which -- given its independent and documentary focus -- could also be seen as a tool of information dissemination.

Each of these products is decidedly progressive, engaged in activism as much as journalism. They are also essentially niche products, with the PBS television station coming the closest to crossing over into the mainstream Rochester market.

An interesting aspect of them all is that they are, essentially, taxpayer funded. Multiple levels of government subsidize one or more aspects of WXXI's public broadcasting products, bolstering its abilities to reach out and, in turn, subsidize the Little Theater and, now, City Newspaper -- which also gets a fair amount of money for the legal advertising of the City of Rochester. 

It is interesting in a society where we so eschew the mingling of church and state that this mingling of press and state is not only not objected to but seen as an entitlement.

A practical impact of this expansion by WXXI is that it allows it to use its financial might to save floundering progressive products in the market. The acquisition of the Little Theater was a rescue, and so is the acquisition of City Newspaper.

That is a nice service to the progressive community, but it's an odd exception to everybody else.

But it all works and no one will complain because it's all served up in a progressive stew, as part of the advancement of a common philosophy.

Never mind that that same philosophy permeates City Hall and increasingly the community's other news operations. 

Where that becomes problematic is when the traditional oversight role served best by independent and competing news operations becomes subdued in the face of political agreement and central ownership.

City Newspaper, for example, has been a City Hall rubber stamp for a long time. It's hippie founding slid over the years into Democrat orthodoxy, where WXXI has lived for a generation. 

These products will offer news, but just kind of. There is advocacy, but not much watchdog. Criticism is almost exclusively directed toward the right, and defense and declaration are in the service of the left. 

That will be the truth now across all the WXXI-owned products.

And any criticism of it will be angrily rebuffed.

But if the names changed on any of these arrangements, hackles would go up.

What would happen, for example, if Channel 13 -- another Rochester television station -- bought the Democrat and Chronicle -- another foundering Rochester newspaper.

The Democrat and Chronicle, in all likelihood, will go to part-week circulation at some point in the not-distant future. That would put it, legally, in the same category as City Newspaper and easily legally purchasable by a broadcasting outlet operating in the same community.

Given the fact Channel 13 is owned by conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcasting, such a purchase would bring a firestorm of objection rife with long discourses on the evils of consolidation and media bias. 

But the situation would be the same as WXXI and City Newspaper, which will happen without a question.

And that's just the way it is.

A number of Rochester news outlets have the same philosophy and, now, the same owner. We used to think that was a bad thing. Now we will help pay for it with our taxes.

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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