As audiences fragment across more outlets, the corporate response has been to get bigger in order to deliver the audience for advertisers not in one place but under one corporate roof.
The effect of this on journalism is not as simple as the traditional arguments about consolidation might suggest. Critics have decried declining diversity of ownership and the rise of chains in media for 70 years. But the trend continues anyway.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld a core principle: out of a diversity of viewpoints, we are more likely to know the truth. Yet we are moving in conflicting directions where we have more outlets for news but fewer owners.
Bigness may give a company the means to provide high quality journalism, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Bigness may also simply make journalism a less and less important part of a company’s entertainment media portfolio and move it farther away from being a public trust.
As of 2004 here are the facts: In newspapers, 22 companies now represent 70 percent of the daily circulation (73 percent on Sunday), according to data from Editor and Publisher. In radio, the top 20 companies operate more than 20 percent of all the radio stations in the country; one, Clear Channel, dominates, operating stations in 191 of the 289 Arbitron-rated markets. In local television, the 10 biggest companies own 30 percent of all television stations reaching 85 percent of all television households in the United States. In network television, the owners are all giant corporations for whom television, let alone television journalism, represents only a small part of their revenues, less than 30 percent.
In magazines, while there has been consolidation, it is not on the same level as in other media. Many of the big players may be unfamiliar names to most readers of this report, and only four of the top ten magazine companies – Time Warner, Hearst, Advance and Primedia – are among the 25 largest media companies overall.
Online, big companies also prevail, at least when it comes to traffic as measured in aggregate by Nielsen and other ratings monitors. Today, more than half of the 20 most popular news Web sites are owned by one of the 20 biggest media companies. Yet it might be more accurate to say that there will always be two Internet worlds, one controlled by giant companies able to amass large audiences to a few Web sites, and the other populated by the world of citizen bloggers or niche web sites, where much of the innovation and energy may come from.