Recently—and rightly—Sinclair Broadcast Group has been hammered publicly for forcing its employees to read an Orwellian, insincere homage to press freedom.
For the most part, the criticism has centered on the threat to 1st Amendment freedoms posed by a powerful corporation supporting and mimicking government propaganda. Although, locally, John Micek, PennLive’s editorial and opinions editor, last week lamented the personal toll it’s taken on some of his broadcast media friends and drinking buddies.
All of this criticism is fair, though it understates the profound magnitude of the crisis we face. This threat has its roots in the consolidation of media and the consequent loss of local control, as shockingly few companies, located in distant cities, now own your “local” broadcaster and newspaper. Therein lies the foundational danger to freedom of the press.
In the town where I grew up (about 18,000 people) in the 1970s and ‘80s, we had numerous news choices. Two free weekly newspapers covered my close-in New Jersey suburb. In addition, two daily newspapers overlapped the town, and many people also read one or more of the large New York papers.
Some of these papers were more liberal or conservative, but nearly all were independently owned, took the news business seriously and tried to cover stories responsibly and objectively. This is no longer the case.
Today, one of the weeklies is dead, the other owned by a big newspaper chain. One of the daily papers merged into the other one, and, a few years ago, the combined entity was taken over by giant Gannett Co.
The broadcast world has experienced similar consolidation, so much so that one behemoth (Sinclair) is now attempting to take over another one (Tribune Media).
In itself, size or even consolidation isn’t necessarily evil. It’s only potentially evil, but, unfortunately, we now seem to be reaching that potential.
Media consolidation actually has been occurring for a very long time. Locally, New York-based Advance Publications took over the Patriot-News in 1947. However, until recently, readers hardly knew that. The Patriot-News continued to operate much as it always had—as a local newspaper, with the corporate parent exercising a light touch. So, almost all operations remained in Harrisburg: the reporters, editors, designers, sales people, back-office staff, etc.
That operating model changed significantly starting in 2012, after Advance mandated that the Patriot-News print just three days a week, yielding to a new “digital-first” entity called PennLive. Since then, it’s pulled back significantly from local reporting, deployed reporters to distant cities, centralized many operations and changed its approach to what gets covered and how.
With Sinclair, we are now witnessing the troubling next step in the centralization and corporatization of “local” news—the risk of distant, gigantic parents mandating not only business and operational models but what is actually said and covered.
What is stopping Advance (which also owns most of the Perry County weeklies) or Gannett (owner of the York and Lebanon papers, among many others) or ravenous GateHouse Media (which two years ago bought the Central Penn Business Journal) from imposing its editorial will? Nothing really. Yes, this is a slippery slope argument, but, as we’ve seen from Sinclair, which increasingly has told its local properties which “packages” to run, it is now a clear and present danger.
The answer is, of course, more local, independent media—more voices, more approaches, more viewpoints. As corporate behemoths increasingly taint and corrupt local media, there must be a revolution from the bottom up throughout this country. As founder of TheBurg, I know how difficult it is to start and sustain a news company, but it is now the only option.
Please know that the news business is not one for the fickle or feint of heart. This is serious stuff, and it will take a Herculean commitment in terms of local capital, leadership, reporting and sales talent and, vitally important today, community support. With the breakdown of the ad-based revenue model, the news business—always tough—has become even harder, and new media outlets will need to be very creative in how to support their operations financially.
However, it is absolutely necessary. To sincerely paraphrase Sinclair’s own insincere corporate-speak: Our democracy itself is at risk.
Lawrance Binda is co-founder and editor-in-chief of TheBurg, the winner of 16 Keystone Professional press awards in 2018, including the Sweepstakes Award. He still wishes Facebook and Google would stop playing games and get serious about helping local journalism.