Newspaper ownership shifting, says Pew; better days ahead? Nope.

Those grad students in the business of writing dissertations about media and newspapers now have an old topic with a new twist: Who owns the media now? Critic Ben Bagdikian, author of six editions of “The Media Monopoly,” traced ownership of America’s media through decades of consolidation. In a PBS interview at the end of the last century, he said:

[T]he media is increasingly owned by a few very large multinational corporations. By the media, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, television and radio. This is growing.

And the consequence of this?

[T]hat means that inevitably people who have such power see the world in a particular way. And when they have dominance, as with candy manufacturers and automobile manufacturers, the less competition there is, the more control they have on … price and quality. In cases of the media and when we’re talking about the news, price is one thing, quality means how much and what kind of news will you give. And what we’re seeing in the media now is a decrease in hard reporting as a proportion of the whole …

In the various editions of his book, he said that a half dozen, maybe a dozen massive conglomerates control the bulk of media content in the United States. Is that still the case?

Many of those large conglomerates — Hearst, Gannett, Knight Ridder, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Media General, McClatchy, News Corp. — grew from family-run newspaper organizations. Almost all daily U.S. newspapers by the turn of the century had become owned by a newspaper corporation or chain of some kind. But some of those corporations no longer exist, killed by …

Enter the Internet, followed almost immediately by massive misjudgments by those newspaper corporations and conglomerates. Enter the loss of advertising revenue to the Internet. Enter Facebook and Twitter and smartphones and tablets and a myriad number of ways to distribute content that did not exist when Bagdikian wrote “The New Media Monopoly” in 2004.

We’ve seen the downsizing of the journalism workforce by tens of thousands since 2007. But ownership’s been changing, too.

Over the past year, the ownership structure of the nation’s daily print industry has seen considerable change. It’s been a fire sale by debt-ridden former mega-conglomerates. In the busiest sales period since 2007, 71 newspapers changed hands in 11 sales. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has created a news media ownership database (see the summary here). This database is a delightful toy to play with.

According to the Pew summary:

Most of the sale prices in these transactions speak to continued softening of the newspaper market. The New York Times Company Regional Group papers were sold for a total of $143 million. Berkshire Hathaway paid a combined $142 million for the Media General properties, which includes 63 weekly and daily papers.

An example of hard times:

Once known as the crown jewel of the now defunct Knight Ridder chain, The Philadelphia Inquirer (along with its sister Philadelphia Daily News) was sold in April for the fourth time in six years. A group of local businessmen bought the company for a reported $55 million, roughly 10% of the $515 million the papers fetched in 2006 when they were purchased by another group of local investors led by advertising executive Brian Tierney. [emphasis added]

Ownership patterns in the news industry are in flux. In the print industry, one facing severe revenue issues, private equity and venture capital firms have stuck their toes in the water. Examples:

Hedge Fund Company Alden Global Capital bought the Journal Register Company with twenty papers including the New Haven Register (CT), the Oakland Press (MI) and the Daily Times (PA). Alden Global has also invested in several other newspaper organizations.

Versa Capital Management, which purchased a number of small dailies in Ohio in 2011, acquired the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in March of 2012.

Despite the proliferation of digital means to distribute content, when the content is news, it is still the nation’s daily newspapers that predominantly create that content. Sadly, because management has cut many thousands of daily reporters (and copy editors!) from their staffs, the quantity and quality of the news “product” has slipped. Unless the news industry can re-capture the costs of producing news content from online aggregators (who are also taking print and online news organizations’ reader eyeballs, and thus ad revenues), the ownership churn is likely to continue.

Because private equity and VC firms typically enhance profit by reducing costs, more “consolidation” (i.e., firings) of the work force is likely. Because newsprint is costly, too, more print editions will die. Professionally reported and edited news is heading online even more than it is today. But these new owners still need to find a way to make money from news websites. Only a quality product — rigorously reported and edited news — will draw readers to a news website.

Bagdikian argued that concentration of ownership raised prices and lowered quality. The Internet — how it is used, misused, and abused by mainstream media and shark-like content aggregation sites — has resulted in higher prices and lower quality, too, but likely for different reasons. Not being an economist, I’ll let wiser heads tease them out.

But this point remains: You ain’t getting the same news quality and quantity once available years ago. And much of what Twitter, Facebook, and aggregators do is merely pass on less-than-worthy content ripped off from newspapers.

Look forward to more repurposed, single-sourced (sometimes anonymous), entertainment-laced, pablum-heavy stories … none of which tells people things they need to know.

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