Private Equity and Media Consolidation

The business practices of private equity firms have been forced into the spotlight as attacks on Mitt Romney’s past leadership of Bain Capital become a central theme in the Republican primary race. I hope that as journalists focus more attention on private equity firms, they also turn around and look at their own industry. Over the last ten years private equity firms have become major players in the media, introducing new questions and considerations in the debate over media ownership.

It just so happens, that this new focus on private equity also comes as the Federal Communications Commission launches its next review of media ownership rules. In January of 2008 I wrote about the role of private equity firms in the debate around media consolidation. At the time, the FCC had just voted through troubling changes in its media ownership rules (which were later overturned in the courts) and they had just approved the sale of Clear Channel to two private equity firms. One of those firms was Romney’s Bain Capital, which has a stake in a number of media properties.

At the time, the Broadcast Law Blog wrote “Private equity should be aware that, in a future FCC, an investigation of the economics of their operations should be expected.” That has yet to happen.

A year later, Matt Crain conducted an in-depth study of the regulatory challenges raised by a media system so intertwined with private equity. He wrote:

“Private equity’s entrance into media ownership  compounds the already convoluted networks of attribution that characterize the  U.S. media landscape. Clear Channel’s takeover by Bain Capital and Thomas  H.  Lee  Partners  illustrates  this  dynamic.  Both  private  equity  firms  own  stakes  in  Cumulus  Media, one of Clear Channel’s main radio competitors, and both firms are heavily invested in Warner Music, a  major music supplier to the radio industry. Thomas H. Lee Partners holds stakes in Univision, also an active radio broadcaster.”

In his final assessment, he writes, “The evidence presented in this analysis strongly indicates that private equity, in its perpetual search for profit maximization, is, at a foundational level, antithetical to the public interest obligations of the media sector.”

Below is the post I wrote in 2008, much of which is more relevant now than ever. Continue reading


The Missed Opportunity of HuffPost’s “Good News”

Today the Huffington Post introduced a new section of its website called “Good News.” In her introduction to the new feature Arianna Huffington wrote:

“I’ve long said that those of us in the media have provided too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies. It’s a belief that goes hand-in-hand with HuffPost Good News’ editorial mission to turn our attention to what is working.”

Trying to emphasize positive news rooted in “what is working” is good, but Huffington missed an opportunity to do something deeper and more impactful with “Good News.” In her short introductory post Huffington uses the word inspiring (or some variation of it) nine times, and provides examples like a man who rescued puppies in Afghanistan. Granted there are also examples of activists and leaders writing on social change, but it all seems retrospective, not forward looking. At first glance, “Good News” looks less like a biopsy, and more like a Hallmark card you send after someone gets terminally ill. Continue reading

Misunderstanding Innovation and Fearing Failure

In what has now become a widely circulated blog post by Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman of The Washington Post, Pexton asks, “Is The Post innovating too fast?” Here is a smattering of points from the conclusion of his article:

 “I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too. Many of these innovations require considerable staff time, as well as more time from editors and reporters to monitor them… Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand… I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival. Many of these changes are working… But there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off. Substance, clarity and direction will be more important in the long run than buzz. Take a breather lap, Post.”

I don’t know Pexton and I don’t know the inner-workings of the WaPo newsroom, but most of the people in my Twitter stream viewed Pexton’s post as at best bizarre and at worst a troubling sign for the Post’s long term relevance. However, it’s worth noting, Pexton does root his analysis in the concerns he is hearing from readers, and a news organization – whether it is innovating or stagnating – should listen to its readers.

But in this case, I don’t think the diagnosis, nor how it was delivered, fit the symptoms. Continue reading

Poem: Table Legs

Every year for my friend Andrew’s birthday he asks his friends to write a poem and mail it (hard copy) to him. The poem need not be about him, or about any specific topic. Here is the poem I wrote last year (inscribed on the bottom of a plastic shoe mold), and this year’s poem is below.

Be sure to check out Andrew’s tumblr blog for a wonderfully curated collection of poems, his and others.

Table Legs

Running your hand over the grain, you said you regretted the wood. So tonight we ate dinner off of you.

As you knelt on all fours, I spread our best linens over your back, smoothing them over your shoulder blades, those remnants of wings.

You were too short for chairs so we sat around you on telephone books and dictionaries. You preferred it that way, sitting on top of stacks of words.

Our plates sloped towards us, leaning away from your spine. We built walls of potatoes to stop the peas from rolling away.

And your heart beat sent ripples across the surface of our wine. I pulled myself in close, bumping my knees against your ribs, and felt the heat of your body on my thighs.

We ate in silence, looking only occasionally at the old oak table, its underside, unvarnished and still rough.
When the others weren’t looking I fed you my radishes and you kissed my fingers.