News - The Cox in CL's coop

Will media giant's investment crimp competition?

I try not to use the word "tragedy" lightly. But it was the word that came to mind when I read last week about the new association between Cox Enterprises and Creative Loafing. To consider this deal — in which Cox is buying a 25 percent stake in Creative Loafing Inc. — a tragedy, you must, as I do, believe in the importance of an independent press and in the media's role as a guardian of human and civil rights. Some days, this idea is the only thing that gets me up in the morning, and if I didn't believe in it, despite the media's excesses and mistakes, I wouldn't be writing here now.
The press is a society's lifeline. It communicates what is going on in the world and its coverage will shape the way that you perceive most events. When a single company has control over every major media outlet, the quality of the news coverage is going to suffer. It will become homogenized and stale. Read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution if you'd like to see an example of this.
Competition is the oxygen of a living, breathing, relevant and strong news media. Monopoly is a strong term, but I don't think it's a stretch to leave that word hanging in the air while I run through Cox's holdings in the Atlanta area:
Cox owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the only major daily in Georgia. The second-largest circulation paper in the state is Creative Loafing, and now at least a piece of CL is in the Cox stable.
Cox owns WSB 750, Atlanta's top news radio station. During April, May and June, WSB had a 12.1 share during the crucial morning-drive period, the highest share by far among all stations in Atlanta; the next largest share was V-103's, with an 8.8, WSB had 468,600 listeners, almost one-sixth of the metro area's population.
Cox also owns WSB-TV Channel 2, which has the highest-rated evening news show in the city. During July, 12 percent of the area's population watched WSB news, almost as many people watched the other three major news shows combined.
Cox's AccessAtlanta.com was the seventh most-visited site in the Atlanta area in August, behind national sites such as Yahoo! and AOL. That makes it the highest-rated local website in the country.
It's possible to argue that the reason all of the Cox holdings have these kinds of ratings is because they're just so good at what they do. There's a certain amount of truth to that; to develop good news stories, you need to have the resources and the financial backing to hire good reporters, buy good equipment and pay for quality research. And to get people to watch, listen or read, you need to promote and advertise. Cox certainly has the financial standing to provide that for its media outlets. Creative Loafing may benefit monetarily from its new association with the Cox cash cow.
But what does corporate ownership take away from a news organization? That's a harder question to answer. I doubt the folks at NBC News feel the presence of their owners, GE, during their daily work lives. Corporate ownership's effects are subtler.
Media outlets owned by large conglomerates often aren't as nimble as smaller owned organizations. They may have the money to be fast on their feet, but bureaucracy can be just as stifling as a lack of cash. I used to work for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, which was part of a chain of 40 similar publications. The headquarters of the chain was in Charlotte, and every time we wanted to add something new to our local website, we had to go through Charlotte. The company wanted all the websites throughout the chain to be uniform, willfully ignoring one of the Web's most useful features, namely, that websites can be customized to suit particular audiences. The Chronicle's website reflects this sluggish decision-making process.
There is a difference between 25 percent ownership and full ownership, of course. Cox is a minority investor in Creative Loafing Inc., meaning it will take two seats, out of eight total, on the company's board. Cox's board presence means the company will be "involved in major decisions," but will remain out of the newsroom, says Creative Loafing Inc. President Ben Eason, whose family still controls a solid majority of the company's stock.
Buddy Solomon, the vice president of finance and controller for Cox Newspapers, echoes Eason. "There will be no editorial involvement," he says. "We are a strategic investor. We are a minority investor, and we don't see ourselves as having a say in the editorial direction of Creative Loafing." Still, he and Cox Newspapers President Jay Smith will be sitting in on board meetings and: "Who knows what editorial issues may come up in a board meeting."
Eason admits that he and Cox representatives did discuss the company's hold on the Atlanta media, but, he says, "We're not worried about it. They are nothing but a minority shareholder. They don't want to harm the success of Creative Loafing, and they know that part of the success of Creative Loafing relates to its being the watchdog of the daily newspaper. If we change who we are, then their investment is not going to be very good."
Still, it will take time to see what the more subtle repercussions of the Cox sale will be. And now it's up to the readers to be the real watchdogs of both Creative Loafing and Cox.

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