Read It and Weep

Posted July 29, 2003 at 4:35pm

Editorial boards at the nation’s largest newspapers have been spilling a lot of ink taking the Federal Communications Commission to task for voting in June to permit television networks to snatch up more local stations.

But newspapers have been unusually quiet about a nearly identical FCC move that could have far greater impact on their own business. [IMGCAP(1)]

On the same day it relaxed the television ownership rules, the FCC voted to loosen a 25-year-old regulation that banned newspapers in major markets from purchasing television and radio stations in the same city.

While editorial writers have been relatively mute, lobbyists for the largest newspapers have been urging Members of Congress not to block the rule change — as the lawmakers appear ready to do away with the television rules.

“We are trying to stay above the fray,” said Paul Boyle, a lobbyist for the Newspaper Association of America.

The companies with the most at stake include the Tribune Co., Gannett, Knight Ridder and Media General.

“I’ve got my hands full,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune’s top Washington lobbyist.

The new FCC rules, which permit newspapers to purchase television and radio stations in cities where there is plenty of competition in the local television market, would apply to 85 percent of the 212 U.S. media markets, according to industry figures.

So far on Capitol Hill, the newspapers appear to have won in the House. Last week, the House defeated by 80 votes an amendment seeking to roll back the FCC’s newspaper-television cross-ownership rules.

Rep. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), author of the legislation, tried to add the amendment to an appropriations bill funding the FCC — the very same bill would block the television ownership rules; on the other side of the Capitol, Senators have focused mostly on the broadcast regulations — although legislation already approved by the Commerce panel includes a provision to overturn the agency’s newspaper rules.

If Congress blocks the FCC’s rule changes, several newspaper owners could be forced to sell major parts of their companies. The Tribune Co., for example, could be forced to sell assets in New York and Los Angeles.

The company’s 2000 purchase of Times Mirror gave it the Los Angeles Times and Newsday in markets where it already owned television stations, Los Angeles (KTLA) and New York (WPIX).

Several of Tribune’s other cross-owned media outlets were grandfathered under the FCC’s 1975 rules, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago’s WGN.

Newspaper lobbyists say Tribune’s media assets in Chicago — and in dozens of other cities — show that owning newspapers, television stations and radio broadcasters in the same market does not damage competition.

“One of the things that has worked to our advantage is the fact that 40 cross-ownerships already exist,” said Boyle. “We don’t think there is going to be a lot of acquisitions as a result of these rule changes.”

Though buoyed by last week’s House vote, newspaper lobbyists are keeping an eye on the Senate, where lawmakers could try to add the newspaper legislation to a spending bill after the August recess.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said the Tribune’s Sheehan. “So we don’t want to play with matches.”

Medicare Advocacy. The Employers’ Coalition on Medicare — a coalition of companies and corporations pushing Medicare reform, a prescription drug benefit and universal health care coverage — is preparing for its second public relations wave of newspaper advertisements and op-eds targeting Members of Congress across the nation.

The first wave of ads went out last week in the hometown newspapers of House and Senate Members who “made difficult votes” and supported Medicare reform, said Ed Kaleta, chairman of the coalition and Washington manager of governmental affairs for Caterpillar Inc.

Some of those Members include Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and John Breaux (D-La.), Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho) and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)

The second wave of ads and op-eds will go out in August, and the third will appear when Members return to D.C. in September. “The most important thing is that the coalition wants to keep the momentum going,” Kaleta said.

Some of the coalition member companies, corporations and organizations listed on the ads include the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Preparing Freddie. The troubled home-loan giant Freddie Mac has tapped the services of former House GOP aide Catherine Nolan, an independent lobbyist formerly of Time Warner’s in-house government affairs shop, to monitor and advise on issues relating to accounting policy, according to lobbying filings. Freddie has other lobbyists, including Ryan Phillips Utrecht & MacKinnon.

Powering Up. Just as the Troutman Sanders Public Affairs Group hired Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-Ga.) legislative director, Laura Quattlebaum, the lobbying firm has picked up some new clients.

One key new client is General Electric, which wants the group to watch issues related to Georgia’s Congressional delegation.

Additionally, the firm is lobbying for S&M Brands Inc., a manufacturer and marketer of tobacco products, to watch general tobacco issues in Congress. Besides Quattlebaum, the firm also has Robert Leebern, the chief of staff to then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Good for the Health of the Firm. Public Relations firm Ketchum has added a string of new health care clients as the debate on prescription drug legislation continues.

The firm has signed up Montefiore Medical Center, Wyeth Consumer Health’s Robitussin, Celera Genomics and Clera Diagnostics and Solvay Pharmaceuticals.

“Even in this troubled economic climate, the health care industry and healthcare public relations are still thriving,” said Ketchum’s Jessica Mark.