How to fight Singleton's monopoly

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EDITORIAL Six members of Congress wrote to the Bush administration last week urging a full Justice Department review of the pending deal that will give one company the Denver-based MediaNews Group control over virtually every daily newspaper in the Bay Area. The letter is a signal that federal regulators may be unable to simply duck this merger but it will take a lot more pressure to block it.

As we reported last week, MediaNews, run by Dean Singleton, is planning to take over the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey Herald, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. That would mean every big central Bay Area daily except the San Francisco Chronicle would be owned by one company. And to make it worse, Hearst the New York Citybased owner of the Chron has signed on with MediaNews as part of the deal: Hearst will buy the Monterey and St. Paul papers, then immediately trade them to MediaNews in exchange for stock in some other MediaNews ventures.

The implications are staggering. The deal sets the scene for an unprecedented level of local media consolidation and could lead to a scenario in which all the business, advertising, and even editorial functions of almost every Bay Area daily would be run out of one central office.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren, George Miller, Anna Eshoo, Ellen Tauscher, Barbara Lee, and Mike Honda wrote: "We are concerned that this transfer could diminish the quality and depth of news coverage in a Bay Area of more than 9 million people." That's a good concern: Singleton, known as "lean Dean," is known for ruthless cost-cutting and is likely to reduce news staffing at all of the papers to save money. He's also likely to take advantage of a virtual monopoly on daily print to jack up advertising rates, hurting businesses and consumers.

The letter quotes Reps. Mark Kennedy and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota as noting: "A monopoly in the newspaper industry is certainly no less dangerous, and is perhaps more so, than in any other American industry." Which is exactly the point: When control of something as essential as civic information is in the hands of too few people, it's a direct threat to democracy.

It's clear that the Internet has made daily newspapers less powerful and less essential. But in the Bay Area (and in most of the country) there's simply no Web alternative that can do the work of a daily paper. Real watchdog journalism requires a staff reporters to go to meetings, to challenge politicians, to stay on top of City Hall and so far, nobody's found a financial model that allows that to happen purely online.

So the threat of one single entity controlling news and information to such a huge extent ought to be a major issue across the state, particularly in the area where MediaNews has most of its holdings. We're glad that some members of Congress are pressuring the White House, but we don't really expect Bush's Justice Department to mount a full-court press on this one. That effort is going to have to come from the state and from local government.