If you want to see how a multi-outlet media company can play politics, take a look at Sinclair Broadcast Group.
According to Acronym, a progressive organization focused on winning elections through innovative digital advertising and organizing programs, much of the spending by Donald Trump’s re-election campaign on Facebook + Google last week focused on the release of the campaign’s new red “Keep America Great” hats. Right in sync, over the weekend, Sinclair, the conservative owner or operator of 191 television stations in the U.S., promoted “news” stories about the availability of the hats.
The planned merger of two other American media giants, Gannett and GateHouse Media, announced on Aug. 5, 2019, could bring more such coordinated propagandizing.
If the merger goes forward, it will not end well.
Completion of the deal would mean the creation of a massive media company with 263 daily media organizations across 47 states and Guam, plus USA TODAY and hundreds of weekly and community papers.
Newspapers across the country may be struggling, but this deal isn’t the best solution. It will lead to centralized editorial control, stifle local creativity, guarantee additional pressure to impose draconian cost cuts and bring brutal widespread layoffs.
Consolidation can also have major consequences in the coverage of elections.
A study published in the Journal of Political Communication found that corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to publish stories that frame elections as a competitive game than newspapers with a single owner.
Researchers for the study were Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and Regina G. Lawrence, associate dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication Portland.
When journalists covering elections focus primarily on who’s winning or losing — instead of on policy issues — voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, a growing body of research has found, according to Journalist’s Resource.
Denise-Marie Ordway, a writer for Journalist’s Resource, says academic studies find that horse race reporting is linked to:
- Distrust in politicians.
- Distrust of news outlets.
- An uninformed electorate.
- Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.
Ordway adds that horse race reporting:
- Is detrimental to female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility.
- Gives an advantage to novel and unusual candidates.
- Shortchanges third-party candidates, who often are overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim compared to Republican and Democratic candidates.
GateHouse, owned by the private equity firm New Media Investment Group (NYSE: NEWM), already has a reputation for aggressive cost-cutting and layoffs at properties it owns.
In Oregon, multiple rounds of layoffs have taken place since GateHouse took over The Register-Guard in Eugene on March 1, 2018,
“What’s happening with the Guard isn’t unique to the Guard,” Tim Gleason, former dean of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, told the Eugene Weekly.”It’s what’s happening all over the country as these venture capital firms buy newspapers and then largely gut them,”
In May 2019, Gatehouse laid off staff at a wide swath of papers it owns, including The Columbus Dispatch, the Lakeland (Florida) Ledger, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram & Gazette. the Providence Journal and The Beaver County (Pennsylvania) Times. The Times newsroom had 60 staffers in the early 2000s; it is now down to 12 to put out a three-section paper six days a week.
Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger lay much of the blame for the evisceration of local newspapers on private equity companies like GateHouse.
“The malign genius of the private equity business model…is that it allows the absentee owner to drive a paper into the ground, but extract exorbitant profits along the way from management fees, dividends, and tax break,” they wrote in The American Prospect., a progressive political and public policy magazine.
“By the time the paper is a hollow shell, the private equity company can exit and move on, having more than made back its investment.”
It’s not a pretty picture.