Who Owns Your Local News? Sinclair Broadcasting Invests In 'The Medford Experiment'

Jul 16, 2019

America's biggest broadcast media company is financially backing the owner of the Rogue Valley’s largest newspaper in a way that’s raising questions about the influence of outside money on local news.

Sinclair Broadcast Group reaches about 40 percent of American households, owning or operating nearly 200 local television stations nationwide.

Sinclair has also gained a controversial reputation for airing commentaries that reflect the views of its executive chairman, David Smith, a political ally of President Trump

Not many news consumers were aware of Sinclair until last year, when it required its local anchors to read an editorial echoing Trump’s criticisms of the media, as highlighted by a video from the website Deadspin.

Media businessman Steven Saslow purchased the Medford Mail Tribune and its sister paper, the Ashland Daily Tidings, from Gatehouse Media in 2017 for $15 million. Saslow incorporated the two papers under his new business, Rosebud Media LLC.

Saslow also secured financing from Sinclair that same week, according to public records obtained by Jefferson Public Radio. They don’t say how much he borrowed, but pretty much all of Rosebud’s assets are listed as collateral. Neither Rosebud nor Sinclair would comment on the transaction, nor on any aspect of their financial relationship.

Shortly after purchasing the papers, Rosebud formed a partnership with KTVL, the Sinclair-owned TV station in Medford. Now the two companies share a Sinclair website management system, phone app system, reporting content, and video equipment. Soon they’ll also share a home, as KTVL moves into the Mail Tribune building.

The Medford Mail Tribune is located in downtown Medford. The Sinclair-owned television station, KTVL, plans to move into the building.
Credit April Ehrlich / JPR

Since purchasing the Mail Tribune and the Tidings, Saslow has shrunk their newsrooms and added a video team. The main portion of the Mail Tribune’s website is now almost entirely dedicated to video content.

Viewers first land on a “Rosebud Update” video, which includes anchor Lauren Forman reading national and local headlines from a studio in Florida. The front page also features “Rosebud Commentary” videos, which include only the conservative opinions of host Larry Mendte, who lives in the New York area.

Current and former Tribune staff told JPR they’re required to shoot video with most of their articles, so they likely won’t pursue a story that doesn't have a visual element to it. They say a media strategist visits from Chicago to give them specialized broadcasting personality tips. They also say they get lambasted by Saslow for not producing award-winning videos.

All of this — the thinning newsrooms, the video emphasis, and the out-of-state consultants and contributors — is a big change for a newspaper that was the first in Oregon to win a Pulitzer Prize for its local investigative journalism in 1934.  

Broadcast Companies Eyeing Newsprint

Sinclair is a media conglomerate that has expanded aggressively in recent years, mostly into small and rural markets, including Redding, Eureka, Eugene and Medford. Sinclair also operates stations it doesn’t own under what are called “sidecar agreements.” These arrangements allow Sinclair to operate stations without actually owning them, so it doesn’t exceed federal caps on broadcasting coverage. The Federal Communications Commission has mostly allowed these deals to continue.

So far Sinclair has bought only television stations. Broadcast companies weren’t allowed to own newspapers until 2017, when the Federal Communications Commission dropped cross-ownership rules. That year, Steven Saslow — a resident of Monroe County, Pennsylvania — purchased the Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings and incorporated them into Rosebud Media LLC. Then he formed a partnership with KTVL, Sinclair’s Medford station.

KTVL is a Sinclair station located outside Medford. It has formed a partnership with Rosebud Media, which owns the Medford Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings.
Credit April Ehrlich / JPR

Like Sinclair’s executive chairman, Saslow influences the editorials published by the Tribune, including political endorsements. In 2018, the paper’s editorial board was leaning toward endorsing Democratic candidate Jamie McCleod Skinner for Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District seat, according to former Tidings editor and editorial board member Bert Etling.

But the board first waited to hear from Saslow.

“We had a discussion and it was kind of tabled because Steven [Saslow] is going to make the call anyway,” Etling said. “There’s no point in us making a decision.”

Saslow said the board should endorse the incumbent, Republican Congressman Greg Walden, so it did. Walden later won the seat.

Walden pushed hard for dropping cross-ownership rules, which previously prohibited broadcast companies from owning newspapers. These rules were designed to protect media diversity, so one company couldn’t own multiple news outlets of varying media in the same market.

Walden told the FCC those rules were outdated and introduced a bill in 2016 that would end them. The following year, the FCC did just that, opening the doors for broadcast companies like Sinclair to expand their reach beyond television and into print.

Since 2016, Walden has received more campaign contributions than any other lawmaker from Sinclair’s political action committee.

Walden didn’t respond to requests for comment on cross-ownership rules.

The Medford Experiment

When Rosebud Media bought the Mail Tribune in 2017, the paper published an article headlined, “Mail Tribune back in local hands.” But owner Steven Saslow continues to live in Pennsylvania and is a registered voter in that state, spending part of his time at a home in the Rogue Valley.

“I made the decision to come to Medford because it was a stand alone city,” he told JPR in February. “It wasn’t what we call a ‘tween’ or ‘between’ city. Like Princeton, New Jersey. You're either from New York, so you gravitate to that, or Philadelphia. This was its own.”

Saslow says he’s using the Tribune and the Ashland Tidings to conduct an experiment on how to best present local news in what he calls “a brand new style.”

“Eye, ear, brain,” Saslow explained. “Eye: it’s got to be visually, really pleasing and storytelling. Ear: it’s got to be unbelievable sound, because we all listen to buds and so forth. And brain: it’s got to be smart. Not like NPR-type smart, but like Apple Computer was smart a decade or 20 years ago.”

This is similar to language he used when he started THINK Televisual Network in Los Angeles. In a 2012 press release, the television company called itself “a radical reinvention of the way news and information is produced.” It lasted just a few years before it shut down.

Bill Carey of Tampa, Florida, also worked with Saslow at THINK and is now Saslow’s primary business consultant for Rosebud Media. Carey also works as a recruiter for Freedom Equity Group, a pyramid-style life insurance sales company where people make money largely by recruiting other people to sell insurance.

Carey declined to comment for this story.
 

Loss of Localism

Changes at the Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings, as well as the outside corporate money from Sinclair, have some local media watchers concerned. Ashland city councilor Julie Akins — who has written articles for both papers and is a former news director for KOBI — says she’s worried about most of the Rogue Valley’s news content coming from a single company.

“It's about singular voice,” Akins said. “It's about a broadcast organization owning a TV and two newspapers in one community so there's basically only one microphone fitting all those needs and requirements.”

Rosebud Media laid off Bert Etling as the Tidings editor earlier this year. Etling says Rosebud Media’s emphasis on video has caused reporters to produce fewer articles.

“Video is a great tool, but it comes with a cost,” Etling says. “It’s time intensive.”

“Pivoting to video” was a popular catchphrase among news outlets a few years ago as they laid off swaths of reporters and replaced them with video editors. But it turned out they based their viewer data on faulty metrics from Facebook. Still, some news outlets continue to emphasize video over the written word.

Despite newspapers trending toward video, Etling says the Rogue Valley still wants a local newspaper.

“Ashland should be a great newspaper town. It’s highly educated, people here tend to be well-to-do, and people are really engaged,” Etling said. “They need a good newspaper.”

But in an age when everyone wants their news quickly and free, newspapers struggle to survive financially. Southern Oregon University journalism professor Chris Lucas says this has led to big companies buying local news outlets, then instituting drastic cost reductions and layoffs to collect short-term profits.

“So all these threads coming together — combining of newspapers and TV stations, shuttering local facilities, reducing news staffs in general — it's all part of a bigger economic process going on, and that is about these big companies trying to control costs,” Lucas said. “Localism is really important, but it’s not cheap.”

Localism is a concept Lucas teaches to his journalism students at SOU: “The idea that you want a diversity of voices, especially at local level,” Lucas said. “A decentralized media ecosystem.”

But media corporations are growing larger than ever before, whether through mergers or partnerships or outright buyouts, and their cost-cutting measures largely include shrinking newsrooms. As this trend continues, the Rogue Valley and rural communities across the country could well get less local news coverage from fewer and fewer people.
 

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the Medford Mail Tribune was referred to as the oldest newspaper in the Rogue Valley. Actually, that title belongs the the Ashland Daily Tidings, which was established in 1876, followed by the Grants Pass Courier in 1885. The Mail Tribune has pre-merger roots going back to 1888, but was established as the Mail Tribune in 1910, when George Putnam merged the Medford Mail, which he bought in 1907, with the Medford Tribune. The story has been updated.

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