Old media matter
The first part of the questionhow consolidated are mainstream media?is a difficult matter to answer with precision, because the mainstream media encompass several distinct sectors that overlap in varying degrees. The emergence of the Internet, and the collapsing of the borders between media and telecommunications, has only muddied the waters further.
That being said, research demonstrates that media have become much more concentrated overall and in distinct sectors. This has been an uneven process, as the breakup or selling off of major assets at conglomerates like Viacom and Time Warner demonstrates. But this reshuffling of assets in concentrated markets shouldn't be mistaken as renewed competition.
Freedom of the press, as A.J. Liebling famously put it, belongs to those who own them. Media consolidation is a problem for a free society because as media become more concentrated, the barriers to entry grow higher, and it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible, for others to effectively enter markets. This is a longstanding tension for freedom of the press in the United States, and it has grown worse in recent decades.
That's why so much activism focused on encouraging local, competitive and diverse media ownership, especially of government-allocated radio and TV licenses. It is why activists press politicians to follow the counsel of the Supreme Court, in its seminal Associated Press v. United States case, and apply antitrust law more vigorously in the realm of media than in other sectors of the economy.
With the emergence of the Internet, the conventional wisdom says concerns about media ownership are about as relevant as an analysis of the War of the Roses is to understanding today's geopolitics. Anyone can start a Web site for a nominal cost and compete with any existing giant on relatively equal footing. We are entering a brave new world where media consolidation is the last of our concerns. No one pushes this line harder than the media and telecommunication giants themselves, who are eager to see ownership rules eliminated.
Of course, the new conventional wisdom is wrong. First, if we focus specifically on journalism, the topic for this week, concentration is undeniable over the past decade and getting much worse. The number of well-paid journalists in competing newsroomswhere the rubber hits the road for a viable news mediahas plummeted over the past two or three decades. Three gazillion Web sites and bloggers working in their spare time will not help us if there are no journalists actually covering stories, with the resources and support to do the job well. Don't get me wrong: There is a crucial place for bloggers and citizen journalists in digital-era journalism, but they are not sufficient in their own right. In my view, this is an area that requires enlightened policymaking. The market and the Internet will not solve it for us.
Second, old media still matter. Not simply because the vast majority of Americans still rely upon them for news and information, and not because much of the digital content and commentary originates with them, but because old media are using their current market and political power to place themselves in a dominant position in the digital future. That is why concentration today could come back to bite us down the road and should be opposed.
Consider the phone and cable giants like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, which have grown dramatically over the past 10 years as they have been "deregulated." They are currently using their monopolistic market power and massive lobbying clout to try to privatize the Internet by ending Network Neutralitythe fundamental principle that prevents Internet service providers from manipulating or discriminating against Web content based on its source, ownership or destination. If these old media giants can determine which Web sites load quickly and which Web sites are stuck in the slow lane, or worse, all talk about citizen journalism and competitive markets will seem far less persuasive. Again, this is a massive policy fight before us right now.
Third, markets, especially Internet markets, tend toward concentration as much as toward increased competition. The lesson of the combination of the Internet and capitalism seems to be that a handful of giants establish quasi-monopolistic empires, like Amazon and Google, and build such scale that no one else can compete with them. So while the Internet may allow everyone to establish a Web site, we should not think that in the realm of media and communication that will lead to competitive markets with numerous viable entities competing for public approval. It could simply lead to a handful of digital giants enmeshed in advertising surrounded by a gazillion impoverished citizen journalists. I am not certain that is a place we want to be. I think that underscores how important issues like public and community broadcasting remain, even if they are eventually conducted entirely online.
To answer the second part of the questiondoes it matter?I think concentration of old media matters a great deal. And the way forward is through smart policymaking in which the public has a seat at the table, not by pretending that new technologies can or will do our work for us.
Robert W. McChesney is a professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder and president of Free Press.
The optimist at rest
Are the media concentrating? I'm tempted to answer this question by saying "Yes, but on the wrong things!" But seriously, there's no question that media concentration has gone up, and as I suggested the other day, that's led to the commoditization, and homogenization, of news coverage. And despite my notorious championing of citizen journalism as part of overall technological empowerment I'm inclined to agree with Bob that citizen journalists aren't a substitute for competent and trustworthy professional journalistsI just think that those are in short supply even at thriving big media operations.
The Web willand doeshelp that out to some degree, as my earlier invocation of independent journalists like Michael Totten and Michael Yon illustrates. But there's another problem that Bob hasn't raised, and even though I know I'm supposed to be disagreeing with him here, I think it supports his point further: It's not only that media outlets are becoming concentratedit's also advertising that's becoming concentrated, and to an even greater degree. One of my own independent media operations is a regular podcast interview show, and this week we interviewed David Verklin, the CEO of Carat Americas. Carat is the biggest independent media buying operation in the world, and Verklin (who has a new book out on the future of advertising) noted that the advertising business is growing more and more concentrated all the time (the share of online advertising controlled by Google alone is shocking). We're likely to see a world in which three or four companies control the lion's share of online advertising dollars, and that's not good for diversity. These enterprises may not be governments, but they have a lot of power over speech, as do the relatively small number of big citizen-targeted platform providers. In fact, as Ben Smith recently observed at The Politico, "Forget television executives and the FEC. The new regulators of political speech are Sergey Brin, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerbergthe chieftains of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, respectively." I don't think the cure for this is government regulation to ensure "diversity" of speech, though I suppose it might be a ground for antitrust regulation. But it's definitely something to keep in mind.
I want to close with another thought that everyoneexcept perhaps economistsmight consider troubling: Perhaps we've been getting too much news all along. For years, newspapers subsidized the reporting of actual news, always a money loser, with revenues from their cash-cow classified ad businesses, which is now fading because of things like Craigslist. Display ad business is also losing out to the Web (Audi reports that 88% of its buyers visit the Audiusa.com website first). TV news, meanwhile, was subsidized by cheap yet lucrative daytime women's programming, which is also shrinking now. So it may be that as the economics of media tighten up and these cross-subsidies vanish, people will only get as much news as they're actually willing to pay for.
For some publicationsthe Wall Street Journal for examplethat will be plenty. (This may be why WSJ publisher Gordon Crovitz describes himself as the last optimistic newspaper publisher). But not many consumers will pay as much as the WSJ charges for news, at least not unless other newspapers manage to make their reporting as valuable to their readers as the Wall Street Journal has done for its own subscribers. That would be a pretty dramatic change, and I don't see any signs of it. So the odds are that there will just be a lot less news and reporting out there. Will the quality increase so as to offset the decrease in quantity? I've been called a Pollyannaish optimist before, but even I'm not that optimistic...
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, creator of instapundit.com, and author of An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.