News & Views from 465 California Street

The PG&E of Newspapers

Clint Reilly

One utility company dominates Northern California. But what if one corporation controlled every daily newspaper?

Newspaper firms argue that monopolies – which streamline production and editorial costs – are the only way for financially beleaguered metropolitan dailies to survive.

The California Public Utilities Commission regulates PG&E for consumers. But who regulates a monopoly newspaper?

If large media conglomerates – unfettered by anti-trust laws – are given a blank check to re-engineer news-gathering in the absence of competition, the results could be grave.

Critical coverage of the local school board or city council becomes overhead to be cut. Big stories that two or three reporters once competed to tell are left to a single overstretched soul. And independent editorial boards, once the primary opinion-making bodies in our society, get boiled down into an overworked (but cost-efficient) regional unit.

What is needed in an era of consolidated media is a new institutional paradigm. The old rules no longer apply. Newspapers have long touted their special status as “watchdogs for the public interest.” But in a monopoly situation, the watchdog for the public interest requires a public watchdog.

Most newspapers make little effort to involve the public in their planning and tactics. Decisions on editorial positions, news-gathering strategies and news prioritization are taken behind closed doors. To the extent that newspapers engage the public on these issues, it is mostly reactive: letters to the editor, a perfunctory column by the ombudsman or redress by a company-appointed public editor.

This simply cannot continue if newspapers are allowed to consolidate. The doors must be thrown open wide to public participation in an institutionalized, structured way. This will increase accountability and ensure the continued competition of diverse perspectives. It will also add value to the publication by reconnecting the paper of record with the people it serves.

If structured and managed correctly, public input into news-gathering and editorial decisions will build social equity in under-served communities and provide the newspaper with new lines of inquiry into civic issues. And by making the public a formal stakeholder, a monopoly newspaper could maintain its most important asset: credibility. That’s good for readers and better for newspapers.

I propose the creation of three types of oversight for the newspaper monopolies of the future: the Front Page Council, the Citizen Editorial Board, and a State Newspaper Commission to guard against unfair business practices.

These revolutionary new institutions would stem abuse in three areas affected by the emergence of a newspaper monopoly: news-gathering, editorial policy and advertising.

The Front Page Council, composed of independent citizens, would represent a broad cross-section of the community. The Council would watch the news-gathering process, offer advice on news priorities and guard against slanted coverage. Most important, these individuals could protest vocally and formally when news coverage is destroyed through irresponsible layoffs. Newspaper executives could no longer ignore the social cost of their actions.

The Citizen Editorial Board is another crucial component of the new era. Although recent years have seen the proliferation of opinions online and elsewhere, newspaper editorial boards still have unrivaled access to elected officials and broad opinion-shaping power. Formalized public involvement on the editorial board would prevent the potentially dangerous concentration of opinion-making power in the hands of unaccountable corporate chieftains. It would also help editors take the pulse of informed local opinion.

Finally, a monopoly situation would require regulatory oversight to ensure fair business practices. If newspapers are granted an exemption from anti-trust laws, then they should be subject to reasonable regulation that prevents price gouging and other monopolistic malfeasance. A State Newspaper Commission with members appointed by the Attorney General and the Governor could solve the problem.

America is built upon the theory of checks and balances. That’s why the Founders erected three branches of government. That’s why Theodore Roosevelt created regulation to curb corporate power.

The same goes for the so-called “fourth estate.” When the balancing effect of competition is removed, a check becomes necessary. If the old rules no longer apply, then it is time for new rules.

Comments (9)

  • Thank you for your excellent and trenchant observations
    today about the monopoly problem arising via the
    concentration of media under fewer and fewer publishers.

    Posted by: John J. | April 14th, 2009 at 7:01 am

  • Citizen Editorial Board…good ideas, Clint.

    Posted by: Sal | April 14th, 2009 at 9:36 am

  • Have you heard the old wives’ tale that “Too Many Cooks spoil the broth”? Everytime government sticks its nose into private business and attempts to regulate it they make it worse. Have you also heard of the 1st Amendment? Congress shall make no laws … prohibiting the free exercise of thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. I do not want A Front Page Council , a Citizen Editorial Board or a State Newspaper Commission deciding what goes into my newspaper. Why do we need individuals to decide what is “slanted” news or coverage and most important who decided what is “slanted” and what is not? If newspapers have to answer to government boards what to put in their newspapers there will not be any accountability when government corruption is evident? I do not want a Council to offer advice on news priorities. Who decides what are irresponsible layoffs? What under-served community doesn’t have a newspaper? Are you talking about Oakland? They have plenty of newspapers that service the community. Why is it the newspapers job to build “social-equity”? Don’t give me that “diversity” crap. That is just smoke-screen for government to control what is in print and what is spoken on the radio and suppression of views they don’t agree with. Talk radio is market-driven. If listeners don’t like what Rush Limbaugh has to say they won’t listen to him and he will go off the air. Look how great Air America turned out? People didn’t listen to it and it folded. Government intrusion into deciding what goes into a paper will eventually destroy it when the government can’t be criticized. Look at the propoganda that was put out by the Communist’s in their newspaper when they were in power in Russia. I do not want the government running the newspapers of this country. If the newspaper can’t make a profit it should go out of business like every other business that can’t make it. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch and the internet has made a hugh dent in circulation. Unfortunately, newspapers do have a liberal bias even if don’t want to believe it. That is one of the reasons they are failing. You can get conservative viewpoints on Talk Radio and the Internet that you can’t get with local newspapers. There is a reason why Congress specifically put a wall between the 1st Amendment and government intrusion with regards to free speech and freedom of the press when the 1st Amendment was written. The founding fathers knew that there would be no accountability of the government if they controlled the press. That is the first thing that is seized when a dictator obtains power. They seize the newspapers and TV outlets and thus control the flow of information. Do you really want some government boards controlling what goes into our newspapers?

    Posted by: Renea T. | April 14th, 2009 at 11:43 am

  • Interesting that the earlier commenter is so up in arms about “government intervention”. I don’t read that. What I’m reading is that the public should have a stake in the news they consume. As for the business side, why do you think it’s ok for one particular industry to ride roughshod across the competitive landscape? I thought conservatives believed in competition?

    Posted by: Harris W. | April 14th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

  • You call for ‘…three types of oversight for the newspaper monopolies of the future…’

    I find your thoughts interesting and your proposals very provoking.

    Three years ago I subscribed to the SF Chronicle, Investors Business Daily & the CC Times (all 3 for many years). Today … just the Times. However, I find that reading the Times is like reading something I have already read online the day / night before. Quite frankly, the local Danville Weekly is the best publication I read because I can identify with it. I couldn’t identify with the SF Chron as there was no local (Danville) coverage. Also, do we really care about the “Castro” and the “SF Board of Supervisors” or Mayor Newsome out here? Who cares? Not us.

    So I think your concern about a “Newspaper” monopoly is ill-founded. The percentage of citizens reading “newspapers” today is down substantially and I surmise will continue to decline. We are seriously considering dropping the Times, also.

    You speak of the “…Newspapers…” or “…Newspaper firms…” in your comments. This is the 21st century … the publishing of newspapers is just one aspect of the Information Industry. So many talk of the “newspaper industry” but don’t really understand what ‘industry’ they are really in.

    I really don’t care where I receive my information from. Paper, online, radio, TV, mailbox or neighbor are all sources. The “newspapers” have no monopoly on information. They are becoming a smaller and smaller segment of the “information industry” contrary to your belief.

    I grew up in Berkeley in the 1940s & 1950s and delivered the Berkeley Daily Gazette. A different era … it’s gone and won’t return. There were limited “delivery systems” of information at that time… as times changed, the Gazette went away. So, too, will many other forms of information in some of delivery systems.

    To create different levels of oversight and bureaucracy in your ‘Oversight’ model is outdated and giving more importance to a sector of the Information Industry that is losing relevance monthly.

    Times change … move on.


    Posted by: Bob in Danville | April 15th, 2009 at 9:17 am

  • I seldom agree with what you write, but your Tuesday’s story was right
    on. I grew up in Oakland when they had two papers, S.F. had four and
    Berkeley and Hayward had their’s. Now it seems like we have two papers
    in all of the Bay Area and they have the same ideology.

    Posted by: Floyd | April 15th, 2009 at 11:07 am

  • This is answering a question that not only has not been asked, but is fantasy.

    Even in the days of high-profit newspaper consolidation, none ever approached monopoly status.

    And TODAY??? Newspapers are struggling to stay alive. You worry about their business practices? They’re losing advertising to other media at a record pace.

    If you seriously believe newspaper editorial boards have any significant influence, you need to look up some basic studies – that myth was busted long ago.

    As for “citizen input” into the news, they have it and always have had it: buy the paper or not.

    In a world were news sources are expanding every day, this proposal is ludicrous – unless the real intent is to simply put the final nails in the coffin of print journalism.

    Posted by: Rod | April 15th, 2009 at 11:20 am

  • You need to get a clue…we’re will be lucky to keep one newspaper let alone two.

    The internet business model for real journalism doesn’t exist yet and it won’t until people start paying for content. If it weren’t for newspapers subsidizing on-line news there would be nothing but a bunch of hidden agenda blogs out there.

    What do you think google and the drudge report will link to if newspapers close?

    Posted by: M | April 15th, 2009 at 6:30 pm

  • Clint, you are an oxymoron on two feet.

    Posted by: zack szabo | October 25th, 2009 at 10:19 am

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