Does Media Ownership Still Matter

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism just released their annual State of the Media, a massive report that outlines major content, audience and business trends across news media.

As more and more content has moved online, and the sources for news and information expand and multiply, many have wondered if it matters who owns our media anymore. Pew’s 2010 report is a startling reminder of just how much sway Big Media has over just about everything we watch, read and hear – even in the digital age.

The Pew report found that “80% of the traffic to news and information sites is concentrated at the top 7% of sites,” and that “the vast majority of the top news sites (67%), moreover, are still tied to legacy media.” Thus, the same Big Media companies that dominate offline, dominate online.

In fact, many of the sites that are not owned by Big Media are simply aggregating content from Big Media and repackaging it. Pew notes that “13% of these news sites are aggregators, whose content is derived from legacy media. Only 14% of these sites are online-only operations that produce mostly original reportorial content rather than commentary.”

Media ownership clearly still matters. Even in a world of a million choices, the majority of people still rely on a relatively small universe of news producers. Allowing even more consolidation in our media – either horizontal (think Clear Channel) or vertical (think Comcast/NBC) will mean fewer choices on and offline.

The Pew report points out that media ownership is not just important in relation to what makes the news. Our consolidated media ownership model is largely to blame for the crisis in journalism that has seen so many newsrooms close and so many journalists left jobless.

“For companies that had borrowed heavily in the middle of the decade to expand by acquisition, managing debt was a brutal problem. Best case, they needed to plow back most of what the newspapers earned in operating profit to pay debt service and debt reduction (the case at McClatchy). Many needed to refinance debt coming due at a much higher rate, thus increasing interest expense (the New York Times Company). For others the debt was overwhelming and filing for bankruptcy protection was the only option (Tribune Company, MediaNews).”

We need new models for news, but even more important, we need new media ownership policies that can create space for these new models to emerge. The Pew report makes clear that we can’t create a new media system from the edges alone. We need to create fundamental, systemic change, and need to start by changing the bad policies that created this system in the first place.

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