Op-ed: Investing in local media is mutually beneficial

Emerson’s co-curriculars for broadcasting and journalism—WEBN, Emerson Independent Video, and The Emerson Channel—offer an environment where students can make mistakes and learn the basics, but at the end of the day, it’s not the real world. The stakes change dramatically when one works alongside professionals on a product that is going to potentially reach thousands of homes, not just parents, Facebook friends, and the occasional late-night YouTubers.

Emerson has a golden opportunity to not only save a local journalism institution, but to provide students with better, real-world experiences. In August, Cox Media Group, which owns Boston 25 News—the local Fox affiliate—announced that it intended to sell off the company’s local TV portfolio of 14 stations, including Dedham based WFXT, located roughly 20 miles from campus.

The college’s ownership of a real station could meaningfully translate to a co-op experience for Emerson students. Students would have the opportunity to assist in field and studio production, assignment editing, investigative reporting research, graphic design, and more. Marketing students could also gain experience at the station through its sales and advertising departments. It could essentially be an extension of the classroom in the real world.

This is not to say the college should do away with co-curriculars, as they are stepping stones to the real world, but the institution should not pass up the chance to offer more and to preserve diversity in the marketplace by purchasing Boston 25.

Student working in a real-world setting at an organization owned by Emerson is a proven and successful model for the college. WERS operates less like a college radio station and more like the type of environment students may end up in after graduation. There is professional oversight, and the station is one of the top 25 most listened to in the market. Alumni have gone on to work at NPR and other recognizable institutions at the local and national levels. The downside to WERS, from a pure journalism perspective, is its lack of original reporting. Reading a script of aggregated information from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. is great practice for news presenters, and its one-hour weekly news magazine is good. But, by design, this style forces short, feature reporting. Emerson needs more resources for students to gain valuable hard and breaking news experience.

Emerson would not be the first Boston-area college or university to own a major local news organization. WBUR, despite its affiliation as an NPR member station, is owned and operated by Boston University. The station is widely recognized as a leader in its coverage of local, state, and national news and politics, with shows in syndication throughout the NPR system. WBUR does not publicly advertise any kind of preference to BU students applying for internships and, to be fair, a number of Emerson students cite the station as experience on their LinkedIn profiles. Given its relationship with the school, one could argue that BU students have more access and connection to WBUR —an advantage Emerson students could have with Boston 25.

In theory, Cox could just sell Boston 25 to some other company with faraway offices, but given the current state of the Boston market, that probably won’t happen. There are five stations: four have network affiliation and the fifth, WHDH “7 News,” is independent. The success of WHDH’s model is uncertain as it was an NBC affiliate 21 months ago, but if the station were to land the city’s Fox affiliation, its profit margins would be more secure. If this happens, the Boston 25 and WHDH newsrooms would merge—leading to layoffs and fewer reporters covering the area.

It’s unclear how much of a financial burden acquiring Boston 25 would be for the college. A leaked Wells Fargo market analysis report of the Cox stations obtained by Scott Jones of the industry insider website FTVLive estimated WFXT brought in $101.9 million in revenue last year. Factoring in the operational expenses and capital needed to purchase the station, it is admittedly challenging to calculate what kind of financial impact purchasing Boston 25 could have on the college.

The idea that Emerson should buy a television station in support of its mission—educating students to assume positions of leadership in communication and the arts—will understandably be met with pushback from a student population frustrated with the way the college spends money. I’m not and don’t claim to be an expert in media, but I see an opening for the college to further itself and the community. Opportunities can be unexpected, and there is value in Emerson taking a look at this out-of-the-box idea.

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