“Give me another issue where the American Civil Liberties Union is working with the National Rifle Association; where you get MoveOn.org agreeing with the Christian Coalition,” Eric Klinenberg was saying in his office in the Puck Building. “When you get these extremes of the American political spectrum -- plus everybody in-between -- coming together on an issue, then it’s time to pay attention to it.”
The issue to which he was referring is media consolidation â€“ the gobbling up by big corporations of newspapers, TV stations and radio stations. According to Professor Klinenberg, who teaches sociology at New York University, there is only one group that seems uninterested: “Major media companies do not cover this issue. They have proven incapable of covering themselves.”
Klinenberg focuses on the issue in a new book, “Fighting for Air: The Battle To Control America’s Media,” which seems itself to be getting plenty of attention, from Philadelphia to Chicago, Nashville to Seattle. We thought we would see what he had to say about New York City. An edited transcript follows:
Gotham Gazette: There is a sentence in your book, Fighting for Air, that sums up what it’s about: “Just as Starbucks knocked out independent coffee shops and Wal-Mart killed the corner store, media conglomerates have devastated locally produced newspapers, television stations, and radio programs throughout the country.” You say this threatens both cultural diversity and democracy. How so?
Eric Klinenberg: We’re not getting news about the places where we live and we’re not hearing local voices on the air.
There are newspapers across the country that have pulled out their City Hall reporters; that cut their school board beats or their environmental reporters. It’s not as if our local school boards no longer shape the quality of our children’s education. It’s not as if there are no more polluting corporations. It’s just that we don’t necessarily get the news coverage of them that we need to make informed decisionsâ€¦
Television newscasts were better 20 years ago. You see more commercials now, more teasers, longer weather reports. One study of more than 4,000 local evening news broadcasts in the month leading up to Election Day in 2004 revealed that a mere eight percent of the broadcasts ran a story about a local political race, including campaigns for the U.S. Congress.
As for diversity, one of the most alarming trends in our broadcast system is the recent decline of minority and female station owners -- people who in many cases got licenses for the explicit purpose of doing cultural and civic affairs programming for communities that large corporations neglected. But they just can't compete with the Clear Channels of the industry, which sell package advertising at deep discounts, own live concert venues, and even own the syndicated programs that more than half of all commercial radio stations play.
Research shows that the larger the owner of a radio station, the less diverse its playlist -- compared to both its programming under the previous owner and to other stations in the same market. Big radio companies operate in top-down fashion. They want national market researchers finding music that appeals to the lowest common denominator, not local DJs selecting music that they like because it's interesting, innovative, and exciting. Local radio DJ’s are struggling everywhere to find jobs.
Big Media And New York City
Gotham Gazette: In New York City, there is no Wal-Mart, and there are still plenty of places to have an over-caloried coffee besides Starbucks (though there are more than 170 Starbucks in the city, and counting.) How is media consolidation affecting New York City in particular?
Klinenberg: Truly local coverage has become a luxury good. So the wealthiest cities are still getting a decent supply of local information. New York is the most competitive media market I know of. People in Los Angeles and Chicago envy New York for the diversity of its local news.
Gotham Gazette: But a lot of New Yorkers, especially community advocates, neighborhood activists, complain all the time about the lack of coverage of local issues.
Klinenberg: Yeah, well, it’s an enormous city. I’m not saying that every community is adequately covered. My point is: As we look across American cities and communities, we find that local information about them has become more of a luxury good.
But New York is not immune from this pressure of consolidation.
The New York City music radio market has changed dramatically in the last ten years.
People here get the same formats and the same kinds of music that are available everywhere else, with the same increase in commercials that have driven many of us off the dial.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of consolidation in New York is the cable television industry. Most New Yorkers don’t have a choice about cable; it’s a non-competitive part of the marketplace.
As a result, the cost of cable television has skyrocketed. Rates have gone up higher for Cablevision subscribers than for anyone else. And we are paying for channels we never watch.
The Death Of Alt?
The other dramatic story has to do with the transformation of the alt weeklies. The Village Voice is now managed by two libertarians from Phoenix, Arizona. They merged New Times with Village Voice Media, they took the name, Village Voice Media, but the controlling party are these two from Phoenix. They came to town, they fired veterans, they imposed conditions that were so difficult for others that they resigned, they lost an editor. In the view of many veterans at the Voice, they crushed the spirits of the newspaper and tried to impose a style whose fit for the city remains open to question. For example, many people at the Voice were concerned that there was a political purge, that [co-owner] Michael Lacey wanted to take the progressive voice out of the Village Voice. The Village Voice long ago lost its tight connection to Greenwich Village. It became a New York institution and somewhat of a national institution as well, but it’s always had this distinctly alternative voice, and the voice of Michael Lacey and the new Village Voice management is alternative only insofar as frat boy contrarianism of the kind that we associate with the party that’s in power right now is an alternative; in my view that’s not very alternative at all.
Gotham Gazette: This is on the basis of your reading the issues since the new owners took over?
Klinenberg: I think we’re still watching the Village Voice change. I’ve been reading the New Times publications for years, and I’ve had countless conversations with former New Times employees, current New Times employees, as well as those with other alternative weeklies, about the way that company does business. The standard operating style of the New Times weekly papers was to pare down the editorial staff so that they had fewer full-time reporters than papers like the Village Voice used to have. In the cultural coverage, they have a number of movie reviewers, music reviewers, who do content for all of the Village Voice media chain papers; that means a smaller number of perspectives.
Gotham Gazette: You are talking about what the chain was like before it merged with the Village Voice Media, and you are also talking about what has happened in other cities. I wondered if there is evidence that this has happened here.
Klinenberg: The jury is still out. I haven’t seen the Village Voice replace all the people who resigned or were fired.
Gotham Gazette: I have seen stories though that say they are hiring.
Klinenberg: I see ads.
Gotham Gazette: So, you don’t know for sure yet.
Klinenberg: I’m pretty certain they have not exceeded the number of employees they used to have. The style of management in this company is that you have smaller newsrooms. They have quotas; reporters have to get work out more quickly. Some of the reporters I spoke with [in other Village Voice Media newspapers] complained that when you have to produce reported stories quickly, you’re more likely to go after public companies or non-profits, whose financial information is more readily available, than do deep investigations into the private sector.
Gotham Gazette: So, to sum up: The effects of consolidation have been most dramatic nationally with radio and newspapers. In New York City, the effects are most seen in radio as wellâ€¦
Klinenberg: They’re heard in radio.
Gotham Gazette: Yes, heard in radio. The other effects locally are in the cost of cable TV and possibly in the alternative newspaper, by which you mean the Village Voice.
Klinenberg: Yes, but I would add one thing: The mainstream newspaper industry has not been unaffected. I’m sure you follow the story of the Tribune company’s management of the Daily News, sorry, Newsday.
Gotham Gazette: The Tribune company actually owned the Daily News in the past.
Klinenberg: Which is why sometimes I make that slip. But they fired more than 100 reporters at Newsday. The staff recently wrote collectively a letter to the Tribune company, saying that you’re destroying the quality of journalism that made this paper important. So newspaper reporters in New York are experiencing a version of what’s happened to reporters in Los Angeles, just on a smaller scale.
Is Big Necessarily Bad?
Gotham Gazette: I want to show you what’s written on a soda cup from a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant: “Chipotle, Unchained
“According to various media reports, Chipotle is now a â€chain.’ (We thought we were just a burrito joint.) It simply means we have a lot of restaurants. But we’re aware of the negative connotation of that wordâ€¦and we’re intent on disproving it by acting un-chain-like. Because big can be goodâ€¦Because of our size, we can influence for the better how livestock is raisedâ€¦.We also buy organic pinto and black beansâ€¦because we’re buying so many, we’re helping to increase the supply. All that means better food for you. So, size does matter.”
I should point out that the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain is owned by McDonald’s, so they are being a little coy here, if not outright misleading.
But still, what about their argument -- what’s so bad about big?
Klinenberg: What I’m most concerned about is uncompetitive media marketplaces. Big might not be bad, if by big you meant big journalistic staffs, big studios filled with all the live djs and reporters. But what we are seeing is big companies downsizing -- reducing the number of live local human beings producing original content. So in my view we’re getting big companies, small journalismâ€¦ We once considered local news and information to be necessary for democracy in this country; we have a profoundly local political system.
Fragmented, And Neglected
Gotham Gazette: Is there an argument that just as in Europe , we’re becoming more one culture where regional differences are smoothing out and there is such a thing as an American or national culture and society? Is it actually making us more united as a people when the people in Atlanta are reading the same statements from Barack Obama as the people in Chicago?
Klinenberg: I have the reverse interpretation -- that the era of the mass society in the United States is actually in decline; that culturally, we’re fragmentedâ€¦.
In the last 25 years there has been a political shift in this country that involves more political power delegated to state governments. The corporate communities have figured that out, which is why they have made unprecedented investment in lobbying at the state level. If you go to any state capital in this country today, you can see the whole landscape has transformed with fancy hotels, big chain restaurants; it’s an elite scene now.
At the same time the corporate community and lobbyists raced to the state house, the newspaper industry and the radio reporters were going out the other side of the revolving door. Media companies pulled out their investment in this kind of state coverage. And here we have this incredible paradox. There are more significant political decisions taking place in the state capitals, and we have fewer journalists covering that information.
A Change In The Culture?
Gotham Gazette: In the book you attribute a lot of the problems to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. How much can you blame on that single law, and how much is it a change in the culture, and in technology?
Klinenberg: It depends on the industry.
Until 1996 it was illegal for any company to own more than four radio stations in a single market and it was illegal for any company to own more than 40 radio stations nationally. And that meant that by definition, this was a relatively small business. The radio industry was dominated by mom and pop players. There were some big companies that had big radio stations, but it was a highly competitive industry. After 1996, the Telecommunications Act raised the local ownership cap to eight in the largest markets, and eliminated the cap altogether nationally. What happened is that in the next two years, 40 percent of America’s commercial radio stations changed hands. That’s a staggering number. And a small number of companies (basically three) emerged as the true giants of the field, including Clear Channel, which went from 40 stations to more than 1200 in four years.
Radio changed as a result, for the worse.
Gotham Gazette: What about the argument that the large companies have actually saved some local newspapers from going under â€“ and that the cutbacks are about survival in a changed environment?
Klinenberg: These businesses are tremendously profitable. Newspapers have profit margins that dwarf other companies. Typical Fortune 500 companies have profit margins of six percent. Newspapers typically have 30 percent. You’ll have a hard time persuading me to feel sorry for the owners of newspapers.
Media companies are arguing that they’re losing audience because of changes in technology. I’m arguing they’re also losing audience because of their business model â€“ to get rid of local content. Radio broadcasters turned off a generation of radio listeners, who may now not go back.
Gotham Gazette: You talk about counter-trends to the homogenization of media, such as so-called pirate radio stations â€“ whose motto is “Low Power to the People” â€“ and the Internet. Do these leave you hopeful?
Klinenberg: There’s no doubt we have access to more information. But all the evidence shows that there is not more information available on the local level. You can read about South Africa on your computer. That won’t help you make decisions in your neighborhood, in the city, or in the state. No matter how cosmopolitan we are, no matter how global we aspire to be, in my view we all live, ultimately, local lives. When our schools are bad, our children suffer. When our hospitals are bad, it affects our health.
Gotham Gazette: What about hyperlocal media, or what’s being called citizen journalism?
At this point, I would like to do what Kurt Anderson does in New York Magazine and give a full disclosure notice that’s actually an exercise in self-promotion. Your book devotes several complimentary pages to Gotham Gazette as the example of “innovative Internet journalistic projects”, calling it “a remarkably rich publication” and Jonathan Mandell its “tireless editor.”
Klinenberg: I love the Gotham Gazette. I read it every morning. Gotham Gazette would be a sliver of itself were it not for all the local news organizations full of professional reporters, on whom it relies daily for its information.
I love Gothamist too. The co-founder of that blog told me that if they didn’t have the local press, the whole Gothamist model would fall apart.
Gotham Gazette: But this is the first generation of Internet journalism. When Time Magazine first started, it was basically just a rewrite of the articles in the New York Times. Of course now, they have their own massive independent news operation (despite recent layoffs). If Web sites are starting to make money covering local news, why couldn’t they start sponsoring original reporting?
Klinenberg: In theory, that could happen. But I’m not prepared to say that as newspapers fire reporters, bloggers will make up for it. Are bloggers going to replace investigative reporters? Are bloggers going to report on issues that require technical knowledge of a field? Journalism is a profession that took generations to develop. What they do is not always wanted by powerful people, whether they’re public or private.
Gotham Gazette: It’s not always wanted by regular people either.
Klinenberg: The demand for newspaper journalism is at an unprecedented high, if you include the Web versions of the newspapers.
Gotham Gazette: But do readers really miss the investigative pieces, or are they satisfied with the latest escapade of Paris Hilton? What about the argument that publications and stations are giving their subscribers what they want?
Klinenberg: There are many of us who are not getting what we want. If you’re a radio listener, is what you want 20 minutes of commercials every hour? Do television viewers really want extreme political invective rather than local coverage?
Gotham Gazette: How optimistic are you about the future of local media?
Klinenberg: It depends on whether the major telecommunications companies get their way with Congress, and take control of the Internet, so they can offer faster access to their own sites as well as to those sites that can afford to pay a premium for high-speed delivery. This would mean that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation could pay to make it fast and easy for you to get to one of its Web sites â€“ and could make it impossible for you to get to Gotham Gazette or Gothamist or any other site unable to pay.
If we preserve network neutrality on the Internet, I’ll be much more optimistic. A healthy media is necessary for a healthy democracy.