Consolidation of media ownership is nothing new. Fifty years ago, the founder of this newspaper warned of “the autonomy of the press descending from the editor’s sanctum to the counting room in the business office.” William T. Evjue observed that the “giant concentration of wealth” that more generally threatened democracy was especially serious as it transformed the diverse and competitive free press into “mass media.”
Evjue fretted about the consolidation of ownership of media, warning that, as progressive weekly and daily newspapers were bought up by more conservative and corporate-friendly outlets, and by “the chains” he despised, the discourse was being skewed against the common people. “As a newspaperman of 64 years I am disturbed over the way in which the mass media of communications on which the people must depend for facts and information — the press, movies, radio, and television — have been used to produce the climate of fear and hysteria which has enveloped this country.”
Writing in the late 1960s, Evjue warned, “Freedom cannot survive in a climate which has reduced our people into conformity and dumb acquiescence.”
Evjue was right to worry. The consolidation, the conformity and the dumb acquiescence have only accelerated in recent decades. It’s not just that more than 500 daily newspapers have disappeared since Evjue’s death in 1970, that radio ownership has been consolidated and that television news has become a slurry of weather and crime reporting. It’s also that the remaining newsrooms are so sparse. Over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, a quarter of newsroom jobs in the United States have been lost. These losses are across the board: in print, broadcast and online. The primary impact of the digital age has not been to expand and improve journalistic competition but to move ad revenues away from old and new media, leading to a desperate search for ratings and clicks. And to the consolidation that increases the pathologies of mass media.
We note these trends because of reports that Gannett Co., a national media chain with major holdings in Wisconsin, may soon be sold to another conglomerate, GateHouse Media. Gannet owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as well as the Appleton Post Crescent, Green Bay Press Gazette, Fond du Lac Reporter, Wausau Daily Herald, Stevens Point Journal, Sheboygan Press, Oshkosh Northwestern, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, Marshfield News Herald and Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune. (A number of other papers in the state are properties of Lee Enterprises, which owns the Wisconsin State Journal and half of Capital Newspapers. The Capital Times, still independent and Madison-based, as in Evjue’s day, owns the other half of CN.)
The potential sale of the Gannett papers to GateHouse is concerning because the churn in newspaper ownership rarely leads to more journalism. The Milwaukee Business Journal reports that the sale “could result in further layoffs in the already-depleted Journal Sentinel newsroom.” It could also result in additional pressure to downsize the newsrooms of smaller papers and to produce “one-size-fits-all” coverage that cuts costs by blurring the distinctions between Appleton and Stevens Point.
That’s not good for Wisconsin. We need more journalism in general, and more competitive journalism in particular.
It is not our purpose to gripe about Gannett or GateHouse, or whatever they might become as one company. It is our purpose to recognize, as Evjue did, that mergers and acquisitions, consolidations and conglomerations of media outlets are not merely business arrangements. They have an impact on the quality of journalism and the discourse that is forged by great reporting and commentary. That discourse is the cornerstone of democracy.
We hope, as Gannett and GateHouse cut their deals, that significant consideration is given to the fact that the Gannett papers are vital players in the civic and democratic life of Wisconsin. The Journal Sentinel has taken hits in recent years. Yet it is a historic metropolitan daily that continues to produce vital investigative reporting. The Post Crescent and the Press Gazette have been definitional voices in the Fox Valley for generations. The Northwestern has a track record as one of the feistiest and most readable papers in the state. We can say good things about all the other Gannett publications. However, like so many newsrooms, they have been stressed by the changes in the industry. And further stress could be devastating.
So we are following the sale talks closely, as all Wisconsinites should. And we are hoping that, if a change must come, it will err on the side of more journalism, and on the side of the robust democracy that extends from that journalism.
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