It’s hard to have a conversation about anything in the headlines, especially anything to do with technology or politics, without some blame being assigned to “the media,” as if there were one enormous unified communications cloud shaping all our collective thoughts. That would be enormous for certain, but the media is perhaps more consolidated than one might think.
Thinking back, the early cable and pre-internet days seem like living in a land before time, when the economics of the media business were easy, and the industry was represented by voices aplenty.
In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules to prevent companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same market.
In 1999, the FCC subsequently adopted an “eight voices” test to ensure that common ownership of media outlets in a single local market would not reduce diversity of opinion or minority opportunities. The underlying thesis was that multiple voices would promote competition and better serve the public interest.
After decades of litigation by broadcast groups and newspaper owners, the FCC ultimately eliminated these rules. Changes in technology and the overall media landscape have made them unnecessary. On appeal, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s relaxation but was subsequently overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2021.
Looking back, the emphasis on local markets seems misguided. Nothing was done to curtail the growth of media conglomerates across multiple markets. In addition, the FCC regulations never applied to cable or internet companies. These alternatives originally were called the “500-channel universe.”
Today, traditional cable industry giants such as Comcast Corp., Warner Media LLC, Cox Communications Inc., ViacomCBS Inc., Hearst Communications Inc., Fox Corp. and The Walt Disney Co. all have revenue in the billions. And they’re on track to be superseded by a host of on-demand, streaming competitors such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+.
Meanwhile, local daily and weekly newspapers have become a vast wasteland.
According to a 2020 report by the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, over 15 years the U.S. lost 2,100 daily and weekly newspapers — more than 25% — leaving 1,800 communities with no local news in print or online. From 2018 to 2020, 300 newspapers closed, 6,000 journalism jobs disappeared and local newspaper circulation declined by 5 million.
Anecdotally, we hear the loss of local business news has been even greater, as large media companies consolidate ownership of daily papers and cut coverage.
Alden Global Capital,* Lee Enterprises Inc. and McLean-based Gannett Co. Inc. collectively own more than one in six local newspapers in the U.S., with the lion’s share owned by Gannett.
This consolidation trend of media voices and ownership isn’t just happening in newspapers, though.
Nexstar Media Group Inc. and Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. each operate about 20% of the nation’s roughly 1,000 local television stations. Nexstar operates 199 stations in 116 U.S. markets, while Sinclair operates 185 television stations in 86 markets.
And none of these statistics include today’s largest purveyors of information, the so-called “technology companies” Meta Platforms Inc. (Facebook/Instagram), Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc. (Google/YouTube). Meta alone has nearly 4 billion users per month via Facebook and Instagram and brought in almost $86 billion in 2020 revenue.
In the U.S., these companies have remained virtually unfettered by regulation.
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act grants these companies immunity for any third-party content published on their platforms, no matter how egregious.
Meanwhile, social media’s impact on civil discourse and democracy remains increasingly questionable.
Perhaps it’s by dumb luck, but at Virginia Business we’ve managed to remain fiscally and editorially healthy, both in print and online, despite — or perhaps because of — our lack of group ownership.
In any event, we are delighted to be here to serve your business information needs and grow with you in 2022.
Welcome to the new year and thank you for your support.