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News may be delivered by more merged media: Little effect expected in F-M market

Sweeping new federal regulations adopted Monday that are expected to ignite a new round of media concentration likely will have little immediate effect on the broadcasting-and-newspaper landscape in Fargo-Moorhead.

Sweeping new federal regulations adopted Monday that are expected to ignite a new round of media concentration likely will have little immediate effect on the broadcasting-and-newspaper landscape in Fargo-Moorhead.

That's the early assessment of executives of local communications companies after the Federal Communications Commission loosened restrictions to make it easier for companies to own newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market.

"Cross-media limits" in the new regulations make it possible for a single company to own a newspaper, television station, and up to half the local limit of radio stations.

Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum, WDAY-TV and WDAY-AM radio, was exempted from earlier cross-ownership prohibitions under a so-called "grandfather rule" because the company jointly owned all three entities before limitations took effect in 1975.

William C. Marcil, president of Forum Communications Co. and publisher of The Forum, said the new regulations won't result in any changes in ownership or operations of the company's Fargo holdings.


Previously, under former regulations, the company would have been barred from selling all three as a unit to a buyer. Although that now would be possible, Marcil said no sale is planned.

"We've been approached through the years hundreds of times, but the company is not for sale, period," Marcil said. "This company is a family-owned company and we're here for the long haul."

Robert Gluck, president of North Dakota Television LLC, which owns KVLY-TV in Fargo, said the new regulations will not change the relationship his station has with KXJB-TV in Fargo.

A month ago, the two rival television stations reached an agreement allowing KVLY to share certain business operations with KXJB, owned by Catamount Broadcasting Group.

Under the new regulations, a local market must have at least five television stations to enable a single company to own two stations.

Thus, since Fargo has four commercial stations, each affiliated with the four major networks, it does not appear possible for KVLY's parent to buy KXJB, or the reverse, Gluck said.

That assumes Prairie Public Television and the local UPN station, a low-power channel, aren't counted, he said.

"Based on the preliminaries, there's nothing that would allow us to change the structure we have now," Gluck said.


"The biggest difference may mean that you guys" -- a reference to The Forum and WDAY -- "could be in play," a possibility Marcil denied. "It's probably the only thing under the ruling that could change tomorrow."

Dean Alger, an author and public affairs consultant who follows media concentration issues, said one possibility is that one or more television stations could be purchased by a big company in the buying spree that is likely to follow Monday's ruling.

That could result in poorer service if the buyer is a company that relentlessly cuts costs at the expense of the quality of news and other programming, said Alger, a former political science professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who denounced the FCC's action as "dumb and dangerous," wants Congress to overturn the decision lifting many media ownership limits.

"This is the fastest, most complete cave-in to corporate interests I've ever seen by what is supposed to be a federal regulatory agency," Dorgan said. "This decision advances big corporate interests, and does so at the expense of the public interest. It is a decision that chooses concentration over competition."

But Marcil called the ruling good policy that brings regulations in line with the realities of today's media marketplace, where satellite radio and television and the Internet have increased consumers' choices in many local markets.

"It's a changing business and there isn't any reason why newspaper owners should be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to owning broadcasting properties," Marcil said.

Many critics say the continued concentration in ownership of media holdings is bad for democracy, because consumers' access to diverse views is severely narrowed when only a few mega-companies dominate the airwaves.


"This is deeply damaging to the dialogue of democracy," said Alger, who wrote the 1998 book "Megamedia" and who has testified before the FCC on the dangers of media conglomeration.

Concentration is greatest in local radio ownership. In Fargo-Moorhead, for example, most stations are owned by two companies: Clear Channel Communications owns seven stations, Triad Broadcasting Co. owns five.

In a recent tally by Dorgan, Clear Channel owned 23 of 83 commercial radio stations in markets in North Dakota and linked Minnesota cities, such as Moorhead and East Grand Forks. The company was in line to own 21 of the 40 commercial stations in the top four media markets.

The dangers of media concentration became evident in the January 2002 train derailment in Minot, when a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia was released.

As Dorgan has repeatedly pointed out, authorities were unable to put emergency information on the local airwaves because one company, Clear Channel, owned all six non-religious commercial radio stations -- and no one at the stations could be reached for more than an hour.

More often, the potential dangers of media concentration are political, not matters of life and death. A study commissioned by the FCC, released last September, examined 10 "cross-media" markets where newspapers and television stations are jointly owned, including Fargo.

The study examined the "slant" of news coverage in the 2000 presidential election. In Fargo, it found no common pattern in coverage by The Forum's editorial and news pages, nor between the newspaper and WDAY-TV.

The researchers defined "slant'' as coverage that would be more likely to make an undecided voter cast a ballot for one candidate over the other. The analysis examined the last two weeks of the race.


The study concluded that, although the newspaper's editorial page supported Republican George W. Bush, the news coverage favored Democrat Al Gore. It concluded that The Forum's overall coverage was noticeably different than the overall slant of WDAY-TV, which the study said provided balanced coverage.

Marcil said the study shows coverage of Forum Communications Co.'s newspaper and television station are not in lockstep.

"There's always been no collusion at all between the news content of The Forum and WDAY," he said. "In fact, there's always been competition."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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