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A milestone, and a deadline

Community Media Workshop’s new media manager Demetrio Maguigad and his small corps of bright young interns can take a well-deserved bow – and perhaps start catching up on their sleep – with the release of the online version of Getting On The Air, Online & Into Print.

The online version of the classic guide to Chicago and Midwest news media provides detailed contact info for reporters, editors, and producers at nearly a thousand outlets, continuously updated, and allows subscribers to create their own targeted media lists.

It’s got much greater detail than national media databases, and it’s available at a fraction of the cost, with discounts for nonprofits (and a 50 percent discount for 2011 Media Guide subscribers) and day passes available.  A free “test drive” is also offered.

It’s unique – no other city has anything like this, Demetrio points out.

More housekeeping – a reminder, proposals for the Local Reporting Initiative are due this Monday, February 21.

Freelancers, nonprofits, and others interested in helping to broaden coverage of the South and West Sides are invited to submit proposals (more information is here).

It’s part of the Community News Matters program of the Chicago Community Trust, with Community Media Workshop and the Chicago Reporter assisting with administration — and Thom Clark at the Workshop and Alden Loury at the Reporter are available to answer questions.

Rush passed over; media reformers applaud

Media reform advocates have been bitterly disappointed by recent actions by the FCC on net neutrality and the Comcast-NBC merger, viewing them as betrayals of earlier promises by President Obama to maintain an open internet and fight media consolidation.

The appointment of former AT&T president and chief lobbyist Bill Daley as chief of staff has also been taken as a big win for  the telecommunications industry.

But today reformers are claiming a victory – albeit on a somewhat less weighty matter – as House Democratic leadership passed over Rep. Bobby Rush to select Rep. Anna Eshoo of California as ranking member of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Rush was passed over despite his greater seniority after the African-American online activist group Color of Change mobilized members to oppose his candidacy.

The group pointed to Rush’s close relationship to the telecom industry – including  $1 million donated from SBC/AT&T to a charity he’d founded. The  support ran from 2001 to 2004 – roughly the period that Daley served as president of the corporation.

AT&T is the second largest contributor to Rush over his career, and Verizon and the National Cable and Television Association are major contributors, according to Wired.

Among COC’s complaints was Rush’s co-sponsorship with Republican leaders of a telecom bill in 2006 to help cable companies sidestep local franchising – and his opposition of a net neutrality amendment to the bill offered by Rep. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who previously chaired the communications subcommittee.

“This is a big moment for the open internet and for political accountability,” said James Rucker of Color of Change in a release.

“With House Republicans already lining up to attack net neutrality, we needed a strong leader on open internet issues – which we got with Rep. Eshoo,” Rucker said. “Congressman Rush’s position on net neutrality didn’t serve the public.”

With over 800,000 members, Color of Change reports that 16,000 signatures signed a petition opposing Rush and hundreds of members placed phone calls to House leaders.

Rucker also charged Rush with “practically unrestricted support” for the Comcast-NUBC merger.  That merger will hit Chicago particularly hard, as Newstips detailed last year.

In 2006 Newstips reported that media reformers called on Rush to abstain on votes impacting AT&T.

CMW, Reporter in grassroots journalism initiative

Community Media Workshop and the Chicago Reporter will be reaching out to neighborhood bloggers and community groups on the South and West Sides to take up local reporting projects this year, backed by grants from a new Chicago Community Trust initiative.

The Local Reporting Initiative will provide awards of $2,000 and $10,000 for reporting by and for underserved communities in Chicago as part of the Trust’s Community News Matters program.

“We’re looking for the unheralded blogger in Bronzeville or Austin, or for nonprofits and community groups who’d like to engage a local journalist to help them tell their story,” said Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop.

“These are the communities that have been hit hardest in this economic crisis,” he said, underscoring the Workshop’s premise that “without voices from the neighborhoods, there can be no effective urban policy in a city like Chicago.”

Nonprofits, for-profit companies and individuals interested in applying are invited to an information session on January 19, 10 a.m. to noon, at Columbia College, 618 S. Michigan, 2nd floor.  Proposals are due February 21.  (Applications and information are available here.)

The Trust hopes “policy groups, community organizations, media outlets of all kinds, and individuals who care about these communities will be inspired by the Initiative to step up” with proposals for reporting projects, said vice president Ngoan Le.

The goal is to “stimulate a wave of new reporting” on issues affecting low-income communities, the Trust said in an announcement.

Community Media Workshop and the Chicago Reporter will share project administration, with the Reporter providing editorial support and the Workshop working to maximize dissemination of reporting, through Newstips and other online platforms and through social media

The initiative reflects the longtime mission of the Workshop to help journalists find community voices and “move beyond official sources,” and to “let the public and policy makers know that there is life in these neighborhoods way beyond the latest shotgun headline,” Clark said.

The geographical focus is a response to recent Community News Matters research which found that “residents of low-income South Side and West Side neighborhoods are especially concerned about the lack of news organizations covering relevant issues in their communities,” said Clark Bell, journalism program director of the McCormick Foundation, which is supporting the initiative.

Other support comes from the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, and the Woods Fund.

Launched two years ago, the Community News Matters program aims at increasing local news coverage and assisting the development of innovative vehicles for news and information.

“High-quality reporting and analysis is the lifeblood of civic life,” said Le.  But local coverage by mainstream outlets has declined following cuts and consolidation, according to the 2009 New News Report produced by the Workshop for Community News Matters.

The new initiative also responds to findings in the Workshop’s 2010 New News Report that many new media outlets have yet to develop sustainable business models.  A feasability study to be completed February 28 will explore the possibility of establishing an advertising network to support local media innovators.

“Finding ways to pay for the news and information citizens need is one of the critical challenges of our age,” Le said.  “Chicago is blessed with a wealth of new media innovators trying to develop new models for the future.  We are happy to enable them to explore whether, by banding together, they might be able to generate additional financial support for their vital work.”

In addition to the Local Reporting Initiative and the feasibility study, the Trust is extending support for Windy Citizen and Gapers Block, as well as for Columbia College for advertising sales development for Austin Talks.

Can you hear us now, FCC?

The Save The Internet coalition is delivering 50,000 petitions every hour – two million signatures over two days – during the public comment period on the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules.

They’re calling it a “Can-You-Hear-Us-Now-a-Thon.”

The action is intended to offset “high-priced lobbyists for the phone and cable companies” who “converge on the FCC every day,” said Misty Perez Truedson of the Free Press in a release.

FCC chair Julius Genachowski – the deciding vote on the five-member  commission, with two other Democratic appointees considered strong net neutrality supporters – has met with lobbyists instead of “using his bully pulpit to educate the public about what’s at stake,” writes Crain Aaron of the Free Press at Huffington Post.

“Instead of staking out a strong position and forcing powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast to come to the table for a compromise, Genachowski has been negotiating against himself, backpedaling from his backpedaling, and ultimately proposing toothless rules that look nothing like real net neutrality,” Aaron writes.

The Free Press also delivered a letter signed by 80 leaders of consumer, civil rights, and media reform groups (including Thom Clark of Community Media Workshop), calling on the FCC to prohibit “paid prioritization,” protect wireless users from application blocking and discriminiation, and address loopholes in “specialized services” provisions and in the definition of broadband services.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposed rule on December 21.

Nonprofits back Comcast-NBC merger — vaguely

Some 29 local nonprofits testified in favor of Comcast at the FCC’s hearing on the proposed $28 billion Comcast-NBC merger, held in Chicago in July – but few actually mentioned the merger, and none spoke directly to the issues involved in the controversial merger, according to an analysis (pdf) by Chicago Media Action.

Nonprofits backing Comcast included Association House, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Club, Gad’s Hill Center, Chicago Boys and Girls Club, United Neighborhood Organization, Literacy Works, the Center on Halsted, and the YMCA of Metro Chicago.

Only eight nonprofit representatives actually mentioned the merger, and none provided any specific reason for backing it, according to CMA.  Typical is a statement from an UNO representative:  “It is UNO’s belief that the Comcast/Universal joint venture is in the public’s best interest.”

Most pro-Comcast speakers merely praised the corporation for providing financial assistance to their organizations, according to CMA.

“What’s particularly stunning about the comments in support of the proposed merger is how fundamentally monolithic they are,” said Mitchell Szczepanczyk of CMA. “No reason aside from ‘Comcast is great’ was publicly mentioned.”

The 69 witnesses at the hearing were evenly split, half  supporting  the merger and half opposing it.

It was left to opponents of the merger – who included media reform activists, civil rights groups, and other nonprofits – to address a range of concerns, including the threat posed by media concentration to diversity of voices including minority representation; the future of Telemundo and funding for public access cable television; concerns about network neutrality; and Comcast’s record on labor and consumer issues.

As Newstips reported in July, a Comcast-NBC merger would hit particularly hard in Chicago, one of Comcast’s top three markets (and one of eleven cities where it’s the dominant cable and interpet provider) and one of three cities where NBC owns two television stations.

Critics say the merger would cost jobs, hike cable rates, undermine labor standards for telecommunications workers, and create anti-competitive pressures that could force other stations to cut back news operations.

New media: Don’t quit your day job

Online news sites are proliferating in Chicago, but most rely heavily on unpaid bloggers and reporters, according to the New News 2010, the second annual survey produced by Community Media Workshop for the Community News Matters program of the Chicago Community Trust.

The news sites of mainstream media outlets dominate when it comes to traffic.  Out of 8.3 million visitors to 146 Chicagoland news and information sites in May 2010, 6 million were to sites associated with the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times.

While print circulation is down at local daily papers, traffic at their online news sites increased by 20 to 40 percent in the past year.  Paid circulation still far outnumbers online traffic, however.

Of 121 news and information sites surveyed for the report, 40 percent described themselves as blogs, and 36 percent as “niche news,” with smaller proportions self-describing as online news services, aggregators, and independent news organizations.

Sources of financing included advertising (37 percent) and “piggy-bank financing” (31 percent).  Other sites in the survey were sponsored by for-profit (25 percent) and nonprofit (17 percent) organizations; 15 percent reported drawing revenue from sales of goods and services or from donations, and 6 percent reported funding by subscriptions.

While the study shows a great deal of activity and interest, “we don’t know yet how this nascent online news ecosystem will be sustained,” said Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop.

“Despite the apparently large number of consumers of online information, it doesn’t appear there has been any explosion in the number of people actually earning a living producing this information,” he writes in the introduction to the report.

Some 40 percent of online news sites report that no one gets paid; 37 percent have one full-time staff person; 63 percent of sites report no one gets health insurance.

The report includes a listing of 146 online news sites in the Chicago area, including online-only operations and the sites of print and broadcast news organizations.

Comcast-NBC: How will it play in Chicago?

Chicago is the site of an FCC hearing tomorrow because the impact of a proposed Comcast-NBC merger would be particularly dramatic here.  Critics say the merger would mean a less competitive media market, with significant job loss, cable rate increases, and reduced local news coverage.

As detailed at competitioninmedia.org, Chicago is one of eleven cities where Comcast is the dominant cable and internet provider and NBC owns and operates its own TV stations.  Beyond that, Chicago is one of Comcast’s top three markets — and one of only three cities where NBC has a duopoly, operating both NBC (Channel 5) and Telemundo (Channel 44) stations.

“It would put them in a very anti-competitive position,” said Josh Stearns of the media reform group Free Press.  “They could dominate the market and push other broadcast and cable companies out.”

Merging control over content production with distribution means Comcast could restrict access to NBC content for other cable and video providers — or charge them much more dearly.  Down the line there’s the prospect of restrictions on consumer access to online video content.

Combining two local broadcast channels and numerous cable channels with Comcast’s two million cable subscribers in Chicago — with digital boxes delivering detailed information on their viewing habits — the conglomerate could sell “really attractive advertising packages,” including zoned ads, across its broadcast and cable properties, said Steve Macek, a professor of media studies at North Central College in Naperville and activist with Chicago Media Action

“This is a huge issue,” Macek said. A merged Comcast-NBC “will suck up all the advertising in the market,” hurting revenues for other broadcasters and adding pressure among them for more layoffs, especially in newsrooms.  “We’ll see stations cutting back on news staff and perhaps doing away with news altogether.”

This merger — like virtually every media consolidation to date — will lead to fewer journalism jobs, less coverage of the Latino community, and less diversity of voices, said the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in opposing the proposal. 

“We have seen the devastating impact media consolidation has had on newsrooms,” said Ivan Roman in a statement.  He said the public interest commitments made by Comcast in pushing the merger are “troublingly unclear” — and recalled promises by NBC to invest in local stations when it bought Telemundo in 2002.

Instead, “following the merger, NBC gutted the local news operations of Telemundo stations throughout the country.”  While Channel 44’s local newscast wasn’t cancelled, as in other cities, its newsroom was cut back by over a third, by one account.

Significant job loss is routine in giant media mergers, said Macek. “They try to realize savings by combining operations,” he said.  The  opportunity to reduce workforces is “one of the big motivations for these mergers.”

Simply paying off the $8 billion debt required to finance the merger will require job cuts or cable rate hikes, or both, said Seth Rosen, vice president for District 4 of the Communication Workers of America.

“Comcast has promised there will be no massive layoffs,” said Macek.  “Well, that depends on how you interpret ‘massive.'”  There were big job reductions when AOL merged with Time Warner in 2000 (a merger recently called off), at a time of growing ad revenue, he said.  “Now ad revenue is way down. I think there are going to be severe cuts.”

Along with the loss of good jobs, CWA cites the potential for downward pressure on labor standards for remaining workers if a merger reinforces Comcast’s “really aggressive anti-union stance,” Rosen said.

At union workplaces which Comcast has acquired in previous mergers, there’s been “a systematic campaign to get rid of unions,” including refusal to negotiate contracts and support for decertification campaigns, he said.

Of 3,000 Comcast workers in the Chicago area, about 200 are represented by a union, said IBEW Local 21 business representative Jerry Rankins.  That’s what remains from 600 workers at five union shops the company inherited when it acquired AT&T Broadband in 2002.

In negotiations, the company essentially stonewalled, refusing to offer wages and benefits equal to what nonunion employees got, Rankins said; the union filed unfair labor practice charges over the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith, he said.  The company also features compulsory meetings where employees are subjected to anti-union harangues, he said.

Extending Comcast’s reach could undercut telecommunications workers in Illinois, where workers at companies with union representation (notably AT&T) do significantly better in terms of wages and hours, Rankins said. According to CWA, which has a joint Comcast organizing project with IBEW, wages and benefits at Comcast are about a third less than at unionized companies.

Comcast has also replaced regular employees with independent contractors, who get no benefits, Rankins said.

“I am really concerned about Comcast’s overall attitude toward working class people,” he said.  “It’s a moral issue, for the third largest telecommunications company in the country, where the CEO makes $13,000 an hour — they have an obligation to their workers and to the community to pay fair wages and benefits.”

Dueling hearings on Comcast-NBC merger

The Federal Communications Commission comes to Chicago next week for a hearing on the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC-Universal. 

So why is a local member of Congress — with a history of ties to the telecommunications industry — holding his own hearing a few days earlier?

The FCC hearing is Tuesday, July 13, running from 1 to 8 p.m. at Northwestern Law School, 375 E. Chicago.

U.S. Representative Bobby Rush will chair a field hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee at 9 a.m. on Thursday, July 8 at the Dirksen Building, 219 S. Dearborn.

“The timing [of the Rush hearing] is curious,” said Mitchell Szczepanczyk of Chicago Media Action.  “There’s been a lot of organizing around the FCC hearing.”

The FCC hearing includes two panels of witnesses and an extensive public comment period.  Rush’s hearing provides no public comment; Rev. Jesse Jackson will testify along executives from Comcast, NBC, and Earthlink.

Also invited to testify by Rush — and flying into Chicago for a “field hearing” — are Will Griffin, producer of a hip-hop program on Comcast’s on-demand service, who has previously testified (at a Judiciary Committee hearing in Los Angeles) in favor of the merger, and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, speaking for the Alliance for Digital Equality, a group described by Sourcewatch as “a nonprofit front group established to foment opposition to network neutrality by African Americans in key cities nationwide.”

Mayor Daley has endorsed the merger, calling Comcast a good corporate citizen.  It’s also been endorsed by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Urban League.  Some Hispanic groups backed it after Comcast agreed to name an Hispanic to its board of directors.

Chicago Media Action opposes the merger, citing concerns of media concentration, minority issues in hiring and programming, and customer service.  The national media reform group Free Press has called the proposed merger “disastrous” and said it would mean higher prices for consumers, stifle competition on cable and across the internet, and further restrict access to audiences for minority writers, producers and artists. 

The merger proposal, which must be approved by the FCC and the Justice Department, will also be watched for its impact on the issue of network neutrality. 

Comcast has been striving to eliminate requirements that internet content be given equal treatment by service providers; in 2008 the FCC ordered Comcast to stop blocking certain internet traffic, and this April a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC had overstepped its bounds.

It’s relevant here because of the high degree of vertical intergration the merger would create, giving the nation’s largest cable and internet company control over NBC’s programming, cable and broadcast channels, and movie studios, and creating incentives to drive internet traffic to its own content.  Media reformers say if the merger goes through, it must ensure net neutrality. 

But Rush has been leading the charge against net neutrality since 2006, when he cosponsored a telecommunications bill with Texas Republican Joe Barton (lately noted for his defense of BP).  As Newstips noted at the time, that bill was introduced just before the Sun Times revealed a $1 million donation from SBC and AT&T to a charity founded by Rush.

In May, Rush was one of 74 Democrats who broke with their party’s leadership to urge the FCC to drop efforts to protect net neutrality in the wake of the appeals court ruling.  (The Alliance for Digital Equality applauded them.)  According to the Free Press, of all 74 Democrats, Rush has taken in the largest amount of contributions from the telecommunications industry over his career — $128,000.

For an outsider view of net neutrality (and Rush’s role), see this interview with hip-hop journalist Davy D.



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