Wednesday, 5 November 2003

Partnerships mask media consolidation

The Washington Post has an interesting article about the rise of partnerships in the news media industry. (Media Giants Getting Together) In a field where scoops were once jealously guarded, they are now shared with abandon.

More and more media organizations — newspapers, magazines, television networks, Web sites — are forming globe-spanning, interlocking and often-cyclic partnerships with each other; some paid, others not. In an effort to hold budgets in line while expanding out of their traditional niches, newspapers give stories to each other, print reporters appear on television news shows and Web sites link to newspapers, television networks and magazines.
In recent years, civil libertarians have lamented media consolidation with increasing frequency and volume. The more outlets that are controlled by Big Media, they argue, the fewer voices will be heard in the marketplace of ideas. If, for example, AOL Time Warner owns the Turner family of cable stations, cable infrastructure, AOL's Internet publishing empire, a record label, a handful of broadcast television and radio stations, and a newspaper or two, then its news and entertainment reaches a mind-boggling number of people. A few other media companies (Disney, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Co., to name a few) own assets with a similar dispersion across media. Big fish can drown out the voices of littler fish so that the public is left with only a few practical choises for information sources. The resulting homogeneity deprives us of the opportunity to hear minority viewpoints and consume any but the most-popular (or lowest-common-denominator) entertainment.

The partnership model is supposed to mitigate this dystopia. No single company could possibly expand fast enough to grow all the businesses mentioned above internally. Therefore, they must either acquire other companies or form partnerships with other companies to extend their reach as far as possible. Mergers and takeovers result in unified control from the top down. Partnerships are more fluid, usually comprising only a small number of specified joint projects and lasting only for limited times. Projects and their durations are specified in advance in contracts between the partners. Partnerships are likely to focus on efforts most likely to deliver a cost-savings benefit or extend the partners' "reach" as far as possible in a short time. As reported in the Washington Post:

"One of the major justifications proffered for broadcast mergers and newspaper/broadcast combos is 'efficiencies' and 'synergies,'" said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which has opposed many media mergers. "As these deals demonstrate, it is possible to achieve both without actually purchasing or controlling both properties." [Hyperlink mine] At the same time, however, Schwartzman warned that such partnerships "can be abused as a means of reducing service, especially at the local level."

What does this mean for the average consumer of news, entertainment, and other information? One can no longer determine the ultimate source of information from the medium in which it is received or from the "brand name" at the top of the page or at the beginning of the broadcast. An article in the Washington Post may come from the Dow Jones company (via the Post's partnership with the Wall Street Journal). A Discovery Channel documentary may come from the New York Times (via their collaboration on the Discovery Times cable channel).

Would you trust an NBC news report on the latest consumer electronics? Before you answer, consider that NBC is owned by General Electric and has a 50% stake in MSNBC, along with Microsoft. Consider whether NBC has a financial incentive to make people more inclined to buy products made by GE or Microsoft. Now answer the question.

Posted at 10:45:47 PM | Permalink

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Topics: Civil Liberties, IP, Politics, Technology
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