May 17, 2017
Local media outlets keep getting swallowed up by conglomerates, and that’s bad for all of us
by Julia Fleischaker
Back in a more innocent time—August of 2016—John Oliver did a story on the importance of local media. He talked about what would happen when news outlets discovered that posting a cat video was easier and more profitable than hiring a local reporter to sit in on local government meetings. From Ryan Bort at Newsweek:
When people aren’t as interested in local newspaper reporting, local newspapers are going to be less interested in paying for it, which means there will be less reporting, which, as Oliver pointed out last night, is a huge problem. He started by playing a 2009 clip of David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, speaking about this very lack of reporting on local government. “The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption,” he said. “It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them. I really do.”
Or, as Oliver put it, “Not having reporters at government meetings is like a teacher leaving her room of seventh graders to supervise themselves.”
With world-class reporting and unbelievable scoops coming from the national media on a seemingly daily basis, it’s easy to forget the role of local media in the ecosystem. But two stories from the past few weeks drive home the point — and the problem continues to get worse.
In Chicago, it was announced that the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the ridiculously named tronc, would be buying the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times. Stephen Gossett at Chicagoist wrote about the response:
The consolidation-of-a-lifetime was met with immediate gritted-teeth apprehension, no surprise. Under CEO Michael Ferro and investor Sam Zell, tronc.—the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing Company—have not been bashful about their quasi-Orwellian visions of ultra-optimized, self-generating content (we exaggerate only the teensiest). It was there again, between the lines, even in the official line.
tronc CEO and director Justin Dearborn said in a statement:
“If we successfully close, we will be pleased to have the Chicago Sun-Times join our existing family of strong brands and help it maintain its independent voice. tronc will benefit from increased unique visitors, better engagement with Sun-Times consumers and more data for future troncX initiatives.” (Emphasis ours.)
This New York Times piece by David Carr is a pretty good primer on the experience of Tribune employees under tronc management. But that’s not the end of the tronc story. Gossett goes on:
For perspective on how all-encompassing tronc’s grip just on the local media landscape is, just consider the list below of its Chicago-area properties even before news of this likely sale. And this is to say nothing of the LA Times—and its own suburban satellites—the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and numerous other major assets.
-Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Indiana)
-Naperville Sun (Naperville)
-Elgin Courier-News (Elgin)
-Aurora Beacon (Aurora)
-Lake County News-Sun (Gurnee)
-Hoy (also in Los Angeles)
The deal still needs to be approved by the Justice Department, but, yeah, I wouldn’t put too much hope in this Justice Department being concerned about antitrust issues. It’s a good thing that Chicago doesn’t have any local issues that require fair, diligent, and impartial reporting.
Moving on to local TV, it was reported last week that the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group was gobbling up Tribune Media’s forty-two local stations, including the nationally syndicated WGN. From Sydney Ember and Michael J. de la Merced at the Times:
Already the largest owner of local television stations in the United States, Sinclair said Monday that it had agreed to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, beating out other suitors including Nexstar and 21st Century Fox. With the deal, Sinclair would reach more than 70 percent of American households, with stations in many major markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, giving it significant heft at a time of increasing consolidation in the industry.
The acquisition would also provide Sinclair with a far-reaching platform for its news programming. A Pew Research study last year showed that almost 60 percent of adults get their news from television, and of those, almost 50 percent rely on local stations.
That has stoked concern about the pitfalls of consolidation, with some pointing out that Sinclair has shown a willingness to use its 173 stations to advance a conservative-leaning agenda.
You may remember Sinclair from such stories as this one in Politico: “Kushner: We struck deal with Sinclair for straighter coverage”:
Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.
At BillMoyers.com, John Light runs down the greatest hits of the giant broadcaster. Read if you dare.
It’s a grim picture, but let that inspire you to give to your local PBS and NPR stations. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a locally owned newspaper, for the love of Pete, subscribe! In the words of John Oliver, “It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around… The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.