Americans who turn on their local news each night to get the latest on what is happening in their community probably do not ever stop to wonder if what they are watching is appearing on another channel. People tune into Fox, CBS, ABC, or NBC and expect to see reports conducted by just that news station. They assume each network operates independently and might value the news program they watch each night because it is different.

A new trend in news (particularly in local newsrooms) is changing the independence of news networks. A business practice of covert consolidation that consists of deals, loopholes and legal agreements between local television stations that allow them to outsource all the majority of their news programming and circumvent media ownership rules is being employed.

Free Press, a nonprofit that works to reform and further democratize media in the United States, is launching a “Change the Channels” campaign to draw attention to the practice of covert consolidation. They are calling on citizens across the United States to go into public files and find copies of legal arrangements in their community to see if news networks are engaged in covert consolidation.

The organization also is encouraging citizens to post footage from news networks in their local community to show how covert consolidation has resulted in news anchors reading the same story as another news network or the same news report footage being broadcast across multiple local news networks.

A video produced for the campaign clearly shows what is happening. In Asheville, North Carolina, two stations share the same reporter. In Columbus, Ohio, two stations share the same anchors. In El Paso, Teas, two stations share the same address.

Libby Reinish, a program coordinator for Free Press who works on the organization’s “Save the News” campaign, spent hours and hours doing research and work to put together this project. So far, she says research indicates at least eighty markets across the country have seen covert consolidation take place. Over two hundred stations have altered operations and consolidated yet for the most part Americans are largely unaware of this development in American local newsrooms.

One of the most egregious examples of covert consolidation, Reinish explains, happened in Peoria, Illinois and Syracuse, New York. Two media companies, Barrington Broadcasting and Granite Broadcasting, each controlled one station in the Peoria market and in the Syracuse market. No longer wishing to compete, they swapped stations so Barrington would control both stations in one market and Granite would control both stations in the other market.

Danilo Yanich of the Center for Community Research &  Service at the University of Delaware, produced a report on a “shared services agreement” in Honolulu, Hawaii. The agreement made in October 2009 between three of the five television stations in Honolulu resulted in KIVE, KHNL and KGMB combing operations to form a new entity Hawaii News Now. Media Council Hawaii (MCH) filed a complaint with the FCC to stop the agreement.

Yanich’s report compared newscasts before and after the agreement went into effect. From his research, he found that the three-station group was simply duplicating “their newscasts through the mechanism of a simulcast.” The number of “separate news voices” in the market was reduced.

Why should the public care about the state of local television news? As Yanich highlights, “over half of the public (55%)” prefer local television news as a medium for news and political information. Websites and the Internet are a close competitor, but, through search engines, local news television websites are most often the “frequently used source of news.”

Josh Stearns, an associate program director for Free Press on the “Save the News” campaign, suggests covert consolidation is a response to public interest groups and local citizens around the country, who have made it so hard for companies to consolidate.

“If you look back at 2003 when media ownership rules were going to be wiped off the books by the FCC, something like three million [people] fought back,” Stearns recalls. Citizens who fought back ensured that media ownership rules were preserved. Media consolidation was slowed down.

Now, news companies have found a way to get around the rules.

Covert consolidation contributes to the dismal state of local news. A recent FCC report found, “520 local TV stations air no local news at all (258 commercial stations and 262 noncommer-cial stations). Considering those, along with stations that air less than 30 minutes of local news per day, 33 percent of commercial stations currently offer little or no local news.”

There is a way to compel disclosure of covert consolidation agreements, given the fact that broadcast licenses are involved. Stearns notes news companies are keenly aware of their license obligations and no they must adhere to those obligations, which is why in one particular case of consolidation all the staff of a station was laid off except for two people (the minimum number of staff required to maintain a license).

Reinish compares the Comcast-NBC merger deal to covert consolidation saying, while there was likely evidence of supposed backroom conversations and infrastructure being put in place before the merger was eventually approved, covert consolidation is worse because no rules are being violated. New companies are able to erode principles of the press and violate tenets of competition, localism and diversity of viewpoints, which the FCC has been chartered to defend, without the FCC or public ever knowing they are committing any violations.

The FCC will be going through its quadrennial review of media ownership rules. Organizers with Free Press hope the FCC will raise the issue and take a strong stance against the practice.

Additionally, Free Press will be doing crowdsource reporting to uncover more instances of covert consolidation in the nation. They will be urging citizens to go into public files, find copies of legal arrangements, find comments people submitted on the agreement, research how many jobs were lost and how money changed hands, etc.

What has been uncovered is only the tip of the iceberg and they expect once Americans know covert consolidation is happening and begin to detect it while they are watching their local news, they will want to fight back against this practice.

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To coincide with the launch, Free Press has posted this report on covert consolidation.

Again, news stations are making agreements called “Local News Service Agreements” to pool and share editors, journalists, equipment and content.

The report features various points from the Poynter Institute on the “pitfalls” of LNS agreements:

1. Stations that don’t have journalists on the ground may miss out on important sources or angles of a story.

2. The product coming out of a video pool may be devalued by the newsroom, because traditionally only routine or b-roll video was collected this way.

3. Pseudo-events and public relations stunts can take on false importance when one camera crew’s video and just one perspective ends up being re-used across multiple stations, creating an echo chamber and a misleading impression of real significance.

4. The deep context is traded for the quick shot, ignoring the “why and how” of an occurrence.

5. Journalists inevitably lose their jobs. Fewer are needed when one person and a camera covers a few beats for multiple stations.

6. Not all stations in a market necessarily take part  in a pool—which is a good thing in terms of not diluting a non-participating station’s coverage, but actually could make the sharing stations lose viewers in the long run.