Lisa Sorg: Taking on Mainstream Media Conglomerates

Editor’s Note: This is the 12th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

San Antonio Current editor Lisa Sorg led the reporting team that produced a two-part, multi-story package on corporate control of the media. The series, titled Owning the Airwaves and Media Monopoly, won an AltWeekly Award for Media Reporting/Criticism.

Sorg got her start at an Indiana weekly, the Bloomington Independent, where she was music editor. Leaving her music aspirations aside, she shifted her focus to news, environmental and media reporting.  In 2003, she became editor of the Current. On top of her editing duties, she still writes, on average, 2000 words a week for her paper.

In late 2003, a Federal Communications Commission panel announced it would be touring the country to collect information about how well local broadcasters were serving their communities. Earlier that year, the FCC had relaxed its media-ownership rules, making it easier for companies to own more than one TV station in a given area and generally allowing for greater consolidation of already large media conglomerates.

How did you coordinate such an ambitious project?

We had heard about the FCC hearings; the commission announced the final schedule in late December 2003.  The FCC forum in San Antonio was set for late January 2004, a month away.  So we had to do a project of a huge magnitude in three weeks.

I came up with the greater vision for it: what should we cover, how should we approach it. Then everyone honed down the ideas.  We wanted people to pick up this series and feel completely prepared to ask the FCC intelligent questions at the hearing.

It was tough because I had several new people working on staff at that time. I had a brand new part-timer, a brand new intern and a brand new staff writer. So we had three veterans out of six or seven writers. Honestly, I hardly remember it now.  It was a blur.  The issue of media ownership was so monumental that we just had to do it.  If I had known how much work it was going to be, I probably still would have done it, but I would have asked for extra resources.

What made you think this was an important enough subject that readers would want to read two issues of stories on it?

A lot of people don’t realize the machinations that are going on and the puppeteering that takes place in the mainstream media before information gets to the consumer. I think people still need to know a lot more about who owns what, and who’s controlling their information, and what the agenda is.  A lot of people don’t have the time to go through all that, and so the alternative press needs to come in to say, "The emperor wears no clothes."

The mainstream media in San Antonio sucks so much you wouldn’t believe it.  We knew the local mainstream media wouldn’t cover the FCC hearings.  They weren’t going to cover themselves, and they wouldn’t analyze the real issues at all.  So we said, "We’ll set the agenda and make the mainstream press look pale in comparison." We looked at it very aggressively.

Sometimes you give the readers what they want to know, and sometimes it’s your job to surprise them, and then they realize that they wanted to know what you have to say.

What strategies did you use to keep the reader engaged?

We did a basic analysis of what’s on a typical news broadcast every night.  You really have to bring that right into people’s living rooms to get them to be engaged. And when you show people that the first 10 minutes of a newscast is all about death and crime, people will say, "Oh yeah, I have noticed that all I hear about is people getting killed."  If you make it relevant to their personal experience, you can tell the reader they’re not getting the whole story; they’re not getting the breadth or variety or the voices that they deserve to hear.

For example, we have a large Hispanic community in San Antonio, and a lot of activists were concerned that they were being stereotyped in the media as gang members and criminals, and not as regular, capable people.

Also, Clear Channel is based in San Antonio.  That was another impetus for this series. One of the main devils in the whole industry is in our midst.

How did you make sure the stories didn’t overlap too much?

We assigned people very specific stories with very specific foci so we knew where the boundaries were.  We knew exactly what we were going to put in the first week. We wanted to give people a foundation of knowledge so they would know about the changes the FCC was making in the area of media ownership, maybe know more than some FCC commissioners.  The second week we wanted to build on that foundation.  We were very specific about who was doing what, what the focus of that story was, and when it was going to run. 

How do you get information that isn’t readily available for a story like this? 

There were a lot of Web resources.  We found out through media-criticism Web sites who owned what, and then we fact-checked that information.  In some cases, we went through public files at individual stations. People have a right to go through those files, but they can’t always do it themselves. A lot of media reporting is letting people know that they have a right to this information and telling them where they can find it.

What was the public response to the series?

We got a lot of response to that series. It was a very big deal.

I didn’t hear anything negative about it.  Even some people from the daily newspapers sent us e-mails saying, "Great job. You really kicked ass on that." We heard from a lot of people that didn’t really have any idea about how much media ownership affects what they see and hear.  People who read the series or otherwise knew about it understood the gravity of what goes on when the FCC changes its rules.

And I think our series expressed something that probably a lot of people in the media really wanted to say but were not allowed to. Reporters in general are getting a little more aggressive and asking the government harder questions, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but they should have been doing this all along.

Was there any conflict with your own paper’s owners over this issue?

No. In fact as a matter of disclosure, we looked at who owns the Current. We are owned by a company in Pennsylvania that owns dailies, alt-weeklies and radio stations.  Technically they are one of the "offenders" in this issue, although they’re hardly a conglomerate.  Some people would say. "You’re throwing rocks in glass houses," but we wanted to come out and show people who owned us.  The important thing is that our owners have never told us what to write.  They never called us and said, "You’d better put this in." 

Is media awareness exclusively an alternative press issue?

I don’t think it’s exclusively an alt-press issue, but it’s something that the alternative press is uniquely designed to deal with.  The alt press has its own issues, we have our own conglomeration problems, but we have the ability to say things that some people might believe but can’t say.

I think there are individuals in the mainstream media who find things kind of repulsive but can’t say so.  But we can in the alternative press, and that’s what we really have to do.

How has media awareness changed over the years? 

People are more savvy about the media, and there are a lot more options out there, but I have a fear that a lot of that is superficial.  I am torn between being completely hopeful and utterly hopeless. I anticipate a backlash against the sound bite, and the alternative press has an obligation to resist the sound-bite format.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have short, bright things in your paper, but your content should be varied between short-form and long-form journalism.  I think that’s really what people are hungering for. Otherwise, it’s like eating cotton candy all day: You get a lot of sugar but no substance.

Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.

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