“The Coming Media Monopoly”

by Alexa Tondreau on June 2, 2006

Five panelists drew a full house at the LGBT Community Center Thursday night for a discussion encumbered with the hefty title “The Coming Media Monopoly; Concentration of Press Ownership and Its Effects on Democracy.” The speakers were all noted writers, editors and media reformers who brought a wide variety of opinions and ideas to the table on the subject of media’s future in the face of corporate ownership and control. It was a well-balanced panel of highly articulate speakers, each interpreting the role of the internet, the impact of newspaper “chains” and the role of independent media in local community in vastly individualistic ways. But on one account they were all in agreement: When it comes to media output and consumption, everything is about to change.

The event, presented by the Society of Professional Journalists and Media Alliance, was undoubtedly inspired by recent takeovers in Bay Area media ownership wherein all of the control of news publications lies in the hands of only a couple of major corporations. One such corporation is MediaNews Group, which controls two-thirds of the newspaper circulation in the Bay Area and is the new owner of the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. Additionally, a recent merger between The Village Voice and New Times to form a major alternative media company will ensure that alternative news publications will be answering to the same authority.

The panelists had varying takes on how the corporate management and monopoly of local newspapers will affect the quality of the coverage of community events. Tim Redmond, Editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, thought it spelled out disaster with a homogenization of content and the pricing out of any true independent press in San Francisco and beyond. He described this nightmare as “All Bay Area reporters working in one single newsroom, all using the same approach and attitude, and nationally the news in Miami reading the same as in Chicago as in Denver as in San Francisco, and so on.”

The San Francisco Bay Guardian, a locally owned newspaper, is suing New Times for predatory pricing and anti-trust violations in regards to the business practices they employed as owner of the SF Weekly, also an alternative news publication. Redmond described their alleged tactic of drastically cutting the price of ads, to the point of making no profit off of them at all, just as a means to force out The Guardian.

Redmond described an atmosphere in which formerly friendly competition and cohabitation between independent media in San Francisco had turned into survival of the fittest. “MediaNews wants total market domination and control because they know that competition is expensive” he said.

Stephen Buel of the East Bay Express, a newspaper recently acquired by New Times, had an entirely different take on corporate takeover, seeing the financial security it provides as a good thing in these times of flux. Buel’s concern was not so much for the foreseeable changes in content and coverage, but for the transformation of economics brought on by the internet. With Google and other online companies offering businesses the opportunity to advertise and display links to e-commerce sites, news publications may well lose a substantial amount of their advertising revenue. In this case smaller, independent companies would not be able to finance local news publications for very long.

Buel described how New Times’ acquisition allowed the paper to hire a larger staff, purchase new computers and rent a larger building in which to work. He said, “In the past year, I’ve seen members of an alternative news weekly buy houses in the Bay Area, and I think that’s cool.”

Brad Westerhold, publisher of El Mensajero, a Spanish language weekly in San Francisco, also described a positive experience of corporate ownership. His paper was bought by Impremedia, the owner of 5 other Spanish language newspapers in the U.S., and as Westerfield described it the takeover was the best case kind of scenario with things kept “local and decentralized.”

All of the panelists agreed on the internet’s undeniable influence. Linda Foley, President of the Newspaper Guild, explained that with instant information up for grabs on the net, newspapers “must be more sensitive to where people are in the news cycle.” In order to truly compete with online media, newspapers have to follow the same timelines of information release.

Redmond felt that the web was the only place where alternative news publications can really flourish these days, stating “It’s easy to start an alternative daily on the web, and that’s really good.”

Providing the discussion’s closing thoughts, Sandy Close of New America Media felt that the internet was the new community in which the public lives. “To have a voice in online media culture is to know that you belong,” she said. The purpose of news publications then would be to keep up with the internet’s ability to reach out to this ever expanding community. Large corporations will be valuable to the extent that they can help local news media reach out to the new parameters of our world.

Close certainly posed the most relevant question of the night when she asked, “Is corporate ownership selling up or selling out?”

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