Who Gives You Your News?

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” A.J. Liebling

The Pew Research Center has released its “State of the News Media 2012″ annual report on American journalism. It provides some fascinating information and analysis, and is bound to make you go “hmmm” more than once.

The part that had me scratching my head and pondering the future was their finding that in 2011, “five technology companies accounted for 68% of all online ad revenue.” This is in the context of the observation that companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are working hard to gain control over a vertically-integrated mesh of hardware, software, and content, as well as the related revenue streams. The report looks in particular at how these large companies are beginning to get involed with mainstream news media:

As a part of YouTube’s plans to become a producer of original television content, a direction it took strongly last year, it is funding Reuters to produce original news shows.  Yahoo recently signed a content partnership with ABC News for the network to be its near sole provider of news video. AOL, after seeing less than stellar success with its attempts to produce its own original content, purchased The Huffington Post. With the launch of its Social Reader, Facebook has created partnerships with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and others. In March 2012 Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes purchased the 98-year-old New Republic magazine.

We’ve encountered media barons before; Rupert Murdoch’s empire ranks right up there among the most influential. But it appears that we could be watching the development of something that reaches further into our lives than ever before. The same company that sells you the device on which you read or watch the news also could create the operating system, own the transmission channel, and even fund the news gathering itself. The opportunity for continued shrinkage in the number of active reporters is real, and we could find fewer sources providing more limited views of current events. They don’t even have to block access to distribution to clobber their competitors; they just run them out of business through financial integration of their own operations.

I’m not ready to say that the news media sky is falling. While I also don’t believe that “citizen journalism” is the answer to all of these ills, it does present a useful counterforce and that genie will be difficult to put back in the bottle. Still, massive power does present the opportunity for abuse. Those who believe in the rights of a free press and need for a free exchange of ideas and information will do well to keep a vigilant eye on these developments. Fortunately, we have the Pew Research Center providing valuable data points along the way.