Are America's Media Dying?

Posted by Mitchell - March 1, 2009 (entry 622)

It would appear that America's newspaper industry is facing troubled times. Consider:

* The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has filed bankruptcy
* The owning company of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News filed for bankruptcy
* Hearst is threatening to close the San Francisco Chronicle
* E. W. Scripps has closed down The Rocky Mountain News after nearly 150 years.
* Oh, and the trendsetting Tribune filed for bankruptcy months ago.

Despite this seeming trend of the Internet and the shitty economy delivering a one-two punch to America's newspapers, we commented back when the Tribune filed for bankruptcy that the newspaper industry was still profitable. As FCC acting chair Copps said, "Newspapers profits are about double the S&P 500 average" and Gannett leaked profitable numbers. And now we hear from Advertising Age an analysis that spans the disconnect between a profitable industry and increasing newspaper bankruptcies: It's not the newspapers, it's their debt-laden owners:

"Publicly owned newspapers averaged an operating profit of 10.8% in the first three quarters of last year, Mr. Morton said. That's not the margin enjoyed by newspapers when they were monopolies, but it's not nothing either. The owners, on the other hand, are variously posting huge losses, at least on paper; watching their stock prices plunge; and, crucially, struggling to make payments on debt they took on under projections that didn't pan out."

But while the newspaper industry is delivering mixed signals, one major media industry which might well be on the brink is broadcast television. Here, the signals in recent weeks and months are clear: all hell is breaking loose. Advertising on broadcast TV has taken a nosedive, and with little else in the way of income, there is talk in recent weeks in the media business press of what was considered unthinkable just a few months ago: broadcast networks could leaving behind local stations for cable:

"NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker and CBS Corp.'s Les Moonves have all but said what's coming, even before the crushing recession started to take hold: Sometime in the near future, TV stations may not necessarily be a part of traditional TV networks. The lure of turning a broadcast network into a cable network, complete with advertising revenues and subscribers' fees, has always been too tempting, with the attraction of not one, but dual revenue streams."

If that were to happen, local broadcast TV affiliates, who relied on networks for filling in a good chunk of their airtime, might face an otherwise unfillable gap and even disappear. This would dramatically change the calculus on media in Chicago and the U.S. in at least two directions:

(1) On the DTV front, it could well be the case that broadcast analog TV in the United States wouldn't be able to reach poorer communities, as we've long been saying, but not because of poor outreach or any of a host of problems with digital convertor boxes, but instead because broadcast TV (digital or analog) will no longer exist.

(2) Since broadcast TV in the U.S. would no longer exist, it would be the case that you'd have to pay to watch television. What's been called "free TV" would disappear, but so then would the policy rationale supporting "free TV". Thus, we should ask: Why shouldn't we have a TV licensing scheme in the United States? After all, we're paying for TV anyway and it's our money, so why shouldn't we have our money go to well-funded broad-based public service broadcasting in the United States and have more of a say in where our dollars go, rather than to private unaccountable fiefdoms in the cable, satellite and telecom industries?

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the individual members of Chicago Media Action who authored them, and not necessarily those of the entire membership of Chicago Media Action, nor of Chicago Media Action as an organization.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.