"The surveys I have read indicate that consumers don't differentiate between information found on 'legitimate' news Websites (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal) and the trash sites spewing gossip. That's a little scary. I think it's very important for 'real' news organizations to brand ourselves to protect our credibility. This, I believe, is as big a threat to journalism and newspapering as any of the financial issues." 1
A newspaper reporter was among several of the journalists interviewed for this paper who agreed: "The public perception of 'the media' is not so good. Then again, the public usually lumps newspapers, radio, TV, movie studios and even advertising into the same category." 2
Several factors contribute to the public perception. First is the tendency shown above of journalists to devote resources to a single news story, reinforcing the long-standing criticism that journalists have a "pack mentality"; that is, the notion reporters tend to follow their competitors and pursue the same story in numbers. This belief is reinforced by the reliance on wire services demonstrated above.
A related factor is the inclination of sites such as Yahoo and AOL to bring together news from several news organizations on one site. Even some local newspapers have followed suit, establishing local "portal" sites that combine news from a newspaper and a TV station, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Access Atlanta, or news from two competing newspapers, such as dfw.com, a combined effort by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News. High-profile news organizations have combined efforts for partnerships such as those between the Washington Post and MSNBC, and the New York Times and ABC. Readers may not be sure which news organization produced the story they are reading or seeing.
A similar trend is the third and most discussed factor in the "lumping together" of media the fact that many news providers are indeed banding together into large corporations. Most daily newspapers already belong to companies that own several newspapers and perhaps a few television stations, magazines, newsprint makers, and other subsidiaries. The Tribune company, already the owner of the Chicago Tribune, WGN television and radio, a 24-hour local cable news channel, and the Chicago Cubs baseball team,3 recently announced plans to buy Times Mirror, which owns the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and the Baltimore Sun, and this merger is not the most prominent merger of recent months. In a move few could have imagined five years ago, AOL is buying Time Warner, the company that already includes Time and other prominent magazines, CNN and other cable networks, and long-prominent movie and music subsidiaries.
Media critics have raised several objections to the growth of journalism conglomerates. Sydney Schanberg, the former reporter whose work in Cambodia was the basis for the movie The Killing Fields, wrote in the Washington Post, "about 80 percent (of daily newspapers) are owned by the big chains, which concentrate on reaping large profits and are not much given to public self-examination on ethics and quality issues." 4 Jon Katz lamented the evolution of ownership in a column for The Freedom Forum:
"Media companies are no longer run by independent, idiosyncratic moguls like like Paley, Hearst, Ochs and Pulitzer, but by amorphous conglomerates of stockholders, lawyers, analysts and billionaires. ... Most of the people running modern journalism have no journalistic tradition, and little motive for the risk-taking involved in raising tough issues and offending powerful enemies in business and politics." 5
The journalists interviewed for this paper, however, expressed little concern about the effects of corporate ownership on the media. When asked if the Internet is a good tool for combating control of the news by conglomerates, a newspaper editor replied, "I challenge your assumption that the media is controlled by a few conglomerates. There are A LOT of big news organizations." 6 A media reporter said, "even after the Time-AOL merger, yes." 7
Two journalists touted the ability of large companies to adapt. An Internet product developer said control by conglomerates is "inevitable," noting, "larger companies can absorb such change relatively well ... or if they can't they merge." 8 A Web site content programmer said the benefits of corporations involved in several media could trickle down to journalists who want to make good use of extra space and time. "If a news organization sees its print, broadcast, and online properties as all part of the publication," she said, "it has great power to establish context and background, using each medium to deliver what it's best at." 9
At the other end of the scale, smaller publishers can find niches on the Internet. Small newspapers have used the Internet to find a wide audience for local events that attract national interest such as disasters and major concerts. 10 A Web site content programmer noted:
"[I]f you care about differentiation, if you want something other than the standard wire story, chances are you have access to a publication that will meet your needs. You can get Duke basketball news from the Raleigh News & Observer, political profiles from the Washington Post, media coverage from Salon, etc. or you can read message boards where people are posting from Hong Kong. ... But you don't have to look very far for other takes on topics you're really interested in." 11