WASHINGTON - On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.
There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," he wrote to a colleague, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, "But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them."
His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn't very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.
If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.
News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.
This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.
Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.
In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.
Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers' real estate assets.
Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said "MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG's focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities."
Job cuts, quick profits
"They're owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don't particularly care about the quality of the journalism," said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.
"What they're there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It's very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process."
Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.
The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.
In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.
Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing "must-run" content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump's family and a former political consultant to the president.
Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump's complaints about "fake news."
Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.
The resulting consolidation has been "disastrous for local communities," said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. "We've gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies."
"You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don't know, Phoenix," said Aaron. "Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you're much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we've lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value."
The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.
"When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away," Sullivan said, "there's research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that's gone or diminished."
Last year, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University assembled a list of academic studies that tied the loss of local news sources to a decline in both the quantity and quality of citizens' civic engagement.
Social media news
To fill the gap, Sullivan said, people turn to less objective sources of news, like Facebook, or politically partisan cable television programming.
"It is really a very damaging thing for the way we talk to each other, the way we feel as a community and the way we deal with politics," Sullivan said.
Identifying the disease and cataloging the symptoms is one thing. But finding a cure that will return the U.S. to a more Jeffersonian media model won't be easy.
Sullivan argued that the growth of nonprofit news organizations is a hopeful sign that an alternative to corporatized media may be available. Groups such as Report for America provide funding so that young journalists can work in local media outlets, providing them important training while supplementing understaffed news outlets.
But nonprofits can't bridge the gap entirely, and Sullivan and others worry that the advertising-dependent business model of traditional journalism — particularly newspapers — has been so thoroughly broken by the rise of digital media that trying to rebuild it on the same design will be impossible.
That's why Aaron and his organization want the federal government to get involved. Free Press argues for a return to tighter federal restrictions on media consolidation, including the breakup of existing conglomerates. They also call for federal investment through grants or tax incentives to support local news.
"If local journalism is important to making sure democracy survives, then we need the policies to actually match that need," he said. "And right now, we don't have them."