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Commentary

The Crisis of Consolidation in Bay Area News Media

'This is the situation one expects in a totalitarian regime, not in pluralistic America.'

The core counties of the San Francisco Bay Area -- Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara and the contiguous portion of Solano County – have a population of about six million people. In addition to their seven county governments, they include scores of cities, towns, sheriff’s and police departments; school boards, planning commissions, municipal and superior courts; universities and community colleges; water, solid waste and air boards; transportation commissions and public utility, weed-abatement and mosquito control boards, and many more government bodies.

In this region, one newspaper company -- MediaNews -- owns or controls every paid-subscription daily newspaper except for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Should the San Francisco Chronicle become a part or party to this news consortium, coverage of virtually every level of government, education, sports, criminal justice, arts and business would be in the hands of one organization with a single set of principles, perspectives and purposes.

Philip J. Trounstine

This is the situation one expects in a totalitarian regime, not in pluralistic America. It poses the frightening notion that the commonly accepted narrative of public life is written by one subjective – and often interested -- perspective.

Even without the Chronicle, the unprecedented Bay Area concentration of ownership under MediaNews and its partners has had a deleterious effect on news coverage.

The media outlets already under one ownership include the Alameda Times-Star, Fremont Argus, Hayward Daily Review, Marin Independent Journal, Milpitas Post, Oakland Tribune, Pacifica Tribune, Palo Alto Daily News, Vacaville Reporter, San Mateo County Times, Vallejo Times-Herald, Tri-Valley Herald in Pleasanton, Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News, not to mention myriad other free weeklies and the Monterey County Herald and Santa Cruz Sentinel, just outside of the Bay Area..

This has led to the diminution of competition and diversity in the coverage of the news. In reporting on politics, sports, the arts, business and much more, MediaNews has demonstrated it believes there is no reason – given joint ownership and the demands of economic efficiency – for more than one outlet to spend resources covering any major story that cuts across regional lines.

What is lost by this singular approach to news coverage is the plurality of perspectives, viewpoints and backgrounds from which citizens would otherwise have an opportunity to discover what is and what is not true.

Why should each of the major dailies, for example, send a reporter to San Francisco Giants games, a speech by Gov. Schwarzenegger at Stanford, the opening of a new exhibit at the de Young Museum or a major product announcement by Intel or Apple when each newspaper can share a report written by one writer from any one of the news outlets?

What is lost by this singular approach to news coverage is the plurality of perspectives, viewpoints and backgrounds from which citizens would otherwise have an opportunity to discover what is and what is not true.

News professionals long ago abandoned the conceit of pure objectivity. It is widely admitted to be both philosophically and practically impossible. As Walter Lippmann wrote in Public Opinion 75 years ago:

“A report is the joint product of the knower and the known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed and the habits of our eyes.”

Instead, news professionals have sought to eliminate bias by being thorough, fair and even-handed; by doing their best to adopt a civic perspective; by avoiding loaded language, and by recognizing that a variety of professionals will bring to each story their individual perspective that – in the aggregate – will render something akin to the truth.

But this reliance on multiple viewpoints breaks down when only one news organization commits the resources to report on significant events. When that occurs, every report is filtered through the lens of just one world view, which – as neutral as it may be – can never be wholly objective or free of individual perspective.

Ironically, as alternative sources of information have grown by leaps and bounds – with myriad Internet blogs, cable news, podcasting and other new platforms – the problem of concentrated ownership of traditional news outlets has become even more acute.

That is because the alternate forms of news information are, almost exclusively, news aggregators, not news gatherers. They rely, with few exceptions, on the reporting done by the traditional news organizations funded, by and large, by newspapers.

There are, indeed, ever more places and avenues where individual citizens may read the news. But there are fewer and fewer reporters writing original news reports because newspapers and news conglomerates are cutting back on resources and seeking efficiencies – sending only one reporter to cover an event that, in the past, might have been covered by two or three or four reporters.

As the Project for Excellence in Journalism 2007 report put it:

“There is more evidence now that new technology companies have had either limited success in news gathering (Yahoo, AOL), or have avoided it altogether (Google). Whoever owns them, old newsrooms now seem more likely than a few years ago to be the foundations for the newsrooms of the future.”

But, as newspapers retrench, combine and consolidate, the report went on:

“The outline of what readers might be losing in coverage is still emerging. For now, metro [dailies] have pulled way back from coverage of more remote areas. Unglamorous watchdog coverage of council and school board meetings appears to be suffering. Copy editing is being reduced. Already in 2007, several papers have collapsed business news and metro into a single department.”

Consider one potential example. The San Francisco 49ers are considering moving to Santa Clara, which is working on plans for a new stadium. Many San Franciscans, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are acutely opposed to the 49ers moving to Santa Clara County. The San Francisco Chronicle is loath to see its hometown professional football team move into the home territory of the San Jose Mercury News, which covets the team.

Should the Chronicle and Mercury News become part of the same news operation, coverage of this issue would almost certainly be written from one perspective – from the perspective of San Francisco or San Jose/Santa Clara. What one community might consider an investigative report, the other might consider a hatchet job. Who is the honest watchdog of the public’s interest? Who is under pressure to expose upsides and/or downsides to the move? And from whose perspective?

MediaNews properties in the great Bay Area: The San Jose Newspaper Guild constructed a map of the Bay Area showing the geographic reach of newspapers owned by the MediaNews. Since then the Santa Cruz Sentinel has been added to the group. Blue circles show former Knight Ridder papers.

Political coverage is another area where the singular approach to the news would have a harmful impact on the public interest. No area of news reporting is more prone to a priori bias than political coverage. Deciding what to emphasize, what tone to employ, which facts to report and which facts to ignore – all of these decisions and more are part of the process of covering a political story. That is why the public interest is best served by having reports from a variety of writers from various backgrounds and geographic and cultural perspectives.

If the San Francisco Chronicle and MediaNews are allowed to form a partnership, it is a near certainty that coverage of political news in Sacramento, for example, will be consolidated under one news operation, which will feed stories to all of the conglomerate’s outlets. The same will be true for campaign coverage. One reporter, not several, will cover presidential candidates when they make appearances in the Bay Area. Whether that reporter is versed in the software piracy issues facing Silicon Valley, the inner-city poverty and homelessness of Oakland or San Francisco or suburban environmentalism in Contra Costa County and Marin will help shape his or her news report.

Whether or not the most important issue to discuss with former Sen. John Edwards when he appears in San Francisco is his wife’s recurring cancer, if the singular reporter assigned to the story decides that’s the issue, then that’s all the public will know about. Edwards may have something to say about the environment, poverty and the war in Iraq, but his thoughts may never be covered in a story from a reporter who is focused on Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer.

In actual practice, MediaNews now assigns just one reporter routinely to stories such as the Field Poll or polling released by the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. Instead of fielding calls from the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News, pollsters at these institutions now receive just one call from the MediaNews reporter assigned to the story for publication in all the MediaNews outlets that decide to carry the story.

Newspaper groups assign only one reporter to cover regional stories for all their outlets because in the face of declining circulation and classified advertising revenues (lost to online outlets such as CraigsList), their only hope for survival is to increase their penetration of the local market. An increase in circulation locally can help drive up display advertising rates and income.

That means refocusing resources on local stories at the expense of regional, statewide, national and international reporting. If one reporter can file a story on an event or issue for all the newspapers in the media conglomerate, and if quality of the coverage is not a concern, then it makes no pure economic sense for several newspapers to assign reporters to the same event or issue. The bottom line is served at the expense of the public’s opportunity for a variety of perspectives on that event or issue.

The tragedy for the public interest is that instead of reallocating resources to increased local coverage, newspapers across the country and throughout the region are instead using the economic gains made from consolidation for short-term gains in profitability.

With no meaningful daily competition on significant regional and statewide stories, there is no pressure on news operations to intensify coverage of any issue or event. Just the opposite in fact: consolidation ushers in the decline in the range and depth of information that citizens need to make intelligent civic decisions.

________________________

Philip J. Trounstine is founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. He is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News and former communications director for Gov. Gray Davis of California. He wrote this paper as a consultant to the plaintiff in the U.S. District Court case of Clinton Reilly vs. MediaNews Group Inc. et. al.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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