Ownership of the media: it is not what you think it must be

Traditional media owners may still control the news media, but they no longer control the news. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).

Under the idea of ownership as a filter of the Propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky grouped together three intertwined factors: “size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. 3).

Postjournalism

Source: Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984-2016. By Dwayne Winseck, November 28th, 2017.

Size related to the cost of capital investment needed to establish a newspaper. Early newspapers were industrial only in a technological sense: they printed many identical copies of the same product. But in terms of their economic and business organization, they remained workshops of a comparatively small-scale business.

The workshop-organized papers tended to be class-related because they were respectively funded – either by political patrons from above or by class-specific self-identified readers from below, such as merchants, the bourgeoisie, and, later, workers. These were the first identifiers of the media audiences when the audience of papers started taking structure from the unsegmented primeval soup in the 17th to 19th centuries.

When advertising became the dominant factor of the media business, the scale of distribution outvalued the social addressing of content. Profit-seeking became the leading motive for publishing newspapers (compared to party papers).

The papers with more ads obtained an advantage: they could cash in both on copy sales and advertising. The significance of the class identifiers of the audiences diminished, and the audience started being structured within consumer profiling. The profit orientation with newly opened opportunities to increase profit on ads favored the papers with broader content and larger audiences. To achieve these conditions, large enterprises were required.

The capital cost for the media to enter the market became a restraint for startups. This secured the media market for rich owners and big media corporations. The process of concentration in the media began.

***

The size of operations required for a truly profitable business in this market made newspapers big corporations, but also incorporated them into the corporate world. Herman and Chomsky marked out the factor of social affiliation based on size and profit-seeking:

 In sum, the dominant media firms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful filter that will affect news choices. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. 14.)

That is why Herman and Chomsky, even without admitting so formally, nevertheless listed ownership (size and profit-seeking) as the first and assumedly most important filter of their Propaganda model. The media depicted the world deprived of social controversies and class struggle because they themselves belonged to the big corporations’ world and therefore propagated that respective worldview. The class struggle got masked by consensus, and the audience was identified along consumerist-demographic, not political, differences. Upon this, the personal, professional, thematic, value-based and other dependencies and audience affiliations in the media and their agendas were built.

***

According to the Marxist understanding of social-economic relations, concentration and corporate control are the pillars of the political economy of the mass media. The concentration of media ownership has been constantly increasing since the late 19th century. Any political-economic analysis of the media in recent decades has contained a scrupulous count of an increasingly smaller number of big corporations controlling increasingly larger chunks of the market.

One of the last tendencies in the classical political economy of the mass media, before it started losing its subject, was the transfer of ownership control from the media orgs to telecom corporations. The deliverers of signals had generally seized the power over ‘signal’ production, particularly in the TV and radio segments. Newspapers have mostly avoided such a fate, but that is merely because investors have not seen a viable business there.

Concentrated ownership (along with size and profit-seeking) is still an important factor in defining the principles of agenda-setting. But its impact has significantly decreased for several reasons.

1) The political-economy power of ownership concentration moved to new media – social network platforms, whose size and outreach are simply incomparable with that of old media, – and defines the principles of meaning production on the internet.

2) With emancipated authorship, the power of public opinion – now flak – has increased tremendously. Flak generally outperforms ownership in terms of their impact on agenda-setting.

***

Ownership is still an impactful force in the media industry, but it is not the ownership of the media. It is the ownership of platforms. The owners of platforms, mainly Google and Facebook, are those who determine the owners’ power in the media system.

Traditional media owners may still control the news media, but they no longer control the news. The media, the former monopolists of news production and delivery, have become a part of a bigger news ecosystem, within which the role of the media is shrinking. Consequently, the role of media ownership has also declined. In addition, new factors managing news production and delivery have appeared, such as sharing, or platforms, or algorithms, or virality, for which the classical political economy of the mass media (to which the Propaganda model belonged) did not even have a language. The entire Marx-Engels Galaxy, which contained the Herman-Chomsky Constellation, was swallowed by the McLuhan Universe.

According to Emily Bell, director at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School,

News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.[1]

Nowadays, news must fit not to print but to digital. At the fundamental, technological level, the settings of the digital environment are managed by completely different institutions and forces, over which neither media owners nor editors have any power whatsoever, and which they oftentimes do not even understand. Emily Bell brilliantly emphasized this redistribution of power,

In creating these amazingly easy-to-use tools, in encouraging the world to publish, the platform technologies now have a social purpose and responsibility far beyond their original intent. Legacy media did not understand what it was losing, Silicon Valley did not understand what it was creating.[2]

***

The factors of ownership, size and profit-seeking can now be applied to the digital platform, but they can hardly be seen as a content filter of the Propaganda model as it was defined by Herman and Chomsky. These factors impact content production but not towards consent; rather, the opposite. The platforms’ profit depends on users’ activity and therefore platforms’ settings incentivize the radicalization of self-expression for the sake of a better response (the engagement of others). With respect to political content, this unavoidably leads to polarization, not consensus with the ruling elites. The digital platforms’ ownership and profit-seeking environmentally entail anti-establishment, not pro-establishment, tendencies.

As for old media, classical ownership still matters to them themselves, but its influence on meaning production in society has dramatically decreased.

***

The other factor defining the decline of media ownership as a Propaganda model’s filter is flak.

Any media manager is now as much afraid of the audience as of the shareholders or the board. The media owners are under this pressure, too. With millions of users searching on the internet for something outrageous for their self-actualization, the new media environment can be extremely toxic to brand safety, including the safety of media brands. It is not without reason that companies are so concerned about this issue now. Meaning production is one of the most vulnerable areas of brand activity, be it advertising or media production.

Even some of the biggest brands have been ostracized and put at risk of losses after being caught with content that happened to be virally deemed inappropriate. Paradoxically, the executive power of cancel culture rests, for the most part, on the corporate culture of big capital. These are big corporations with their brand sensitivity and extra-cautious codes of conduct that most often execute the sentences of cancel culture. The media orgs are among them.

This is something completely opposite to the classical filter of size and ownership as defined in the Propaganda model. The impact on a media brand that activists and the viral crowd have today, would have been unthinkable in the 1970–80s, when the only way for activists to spread their outrage regarding the media was through the media. The media were free to simply ignore criticism, which basically made them, their owners, editors and journalists immune to any general public’s outrage. Without its own mechanisms of publicity, the only flak that mattered was the flak produced by the elites and the powerful, the classical Herman-Chomsky flak. They wrote:

The public is not sovereign over the media—the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered, and the public must choose among these. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 [1988], p. xix.)

This has changed since then. Now, because of the internet, the capacity to produce powerful flak has been ‘democratized’. With polarization and the never-ending search for insulting and inappropriate content to be condemned, the media are much more vulnerable to flak from activists, the Twitterati and the general public than they used to be.

The technically enhanced flak has significantly increased business risks for the owners and career risks for the media professionals. Under such conditions, size and corporate ownership of the media may well be factors that are detrimentally affecting their arbitrary rights of agenda-setting.

___________

Andrey Mir

Excerpts from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”

_________

[1] Bell, Emily. (2014, November 21). “Silicon Valley and Journalism: Make up or Break up?” The Reuters Memorial Lecture at St Anne’s College. A short transcript.

[2] Ibid.



Categories: Decline of newspapers, Emancipation of Authorship, Future of journalism, Human as media book, Media ecology, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers

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8 replies

  1. I like to think about the media as having two sectors. One sector is made up of enterprises of all sizes that produce the media content. The other sector is made of of enterprises that provide access to that content. Below is a letter explaining a proposal to create a new public service to mostly replace the private firms the currently monopolize the access to content industry.

    I want to share with you what I wrote to The Honourable Steven Guilbeault.

    Dear Honourable Steven Guilbeault
    Minister of Canadian Heritage

    Thank you for your work for all of us. It is not easy to avoid getting ripped off these days. By failing to publicly fund access to media content we have allowed a massive private industry to evolve into a wild west system where predators and scammers thrive at others expense.

    Despite the challenge we face now, I have hope. I have a dream for better way to access what we want from what is becoming an ever expanding library of digital media content.

    In Canada … in the past we have created new public services that have proven to be fairer to everyone and more cost effective than the private services they replaced. The best example being our Canadian public healthcare system.

    Presently I may be the only person speaking up to say we need a new public service that gives people universal access to digital media content of their own choosing and that automatically pays the producers and owners of the digital content for peoples use of media content.

    It is my opinion that financing the production of media content with advertising or subscription fees weakens democracy. Not only that, there are good reasons to suspect that a publicly funded media access service would lower people’s cost of living by more than it would cost people to finance the service with general tax revenue.

    The weakening of democracy comes from the fact that relying on advertising to finance media content access services creates a huge opportunity for wealthy people and their organizations to buy advertising which is buying the opportunity to influence people’s commercial and political choices. Should it not be clear that this is absolutely not democratic?

    Attempting to solve this democratic deficit by regulating or prohibiting advertising has to be difficult if not impossible given that we have freedom of expression guarantees which I hope we would want to retain. That difficulty does not take away from the fact that it is wrong in a democracy that wealthy people and their organizations have the opportunity to push and amplify their preferred opinions and views.

    My view which comes to you here absolutely un-amplified is that we can solve the democracy deficit simply by publicly financing a new service that gives people free access to their desired media content. I call this new public service The Digital Public Library.

    — The Digital Public Library (DPL)

    a place online where we can go and access any content that there is
    any book, any movie, any song, any newscast, any sports event,
    any text book, any academic paper,
    free of charge we will be able to access it
    free of advertising
    and not only that this public service will pay
    whoever has produced our content
    for our use of it

    Essentially the DPL does just two things;
    Provides access to desired media content
    Provides remuneration for the owners and producers of media content people use

    The status quo Commercial Media does three things;
    Provides access to desired media content
    Provides remuneration for the owners and producers of media content people use
    Provides the opportunity for wealthy people and their organizations to advertise

    In 2017, the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that healthcare spending was $242 billion, or 11.5 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) for that year.

    I estimate funding The Digital Public Library would cost 1.9% of GDP or $ 40 billion a year. (perhaps $ 6 billion for Alberta)

    I claim this service will save people twice as much by reducing their cost of living as it will cost them in extra taxes to finance the public service.

    Digital Public Library? To be clear I am talking about a nonprofit, publicly funded but independent media-content-access service to provide everyone with the access to media-content that is now being provided by, to name some majors; YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and and many more. We need a service that lets us access all content (including text books and academic papers) without having to pay a fee and without requiring us to consent to being surveilled and exposed to predatory advertising pitches intended to manipulate and influence our political and commercial choices.

    This service also needs to provide remuneration for the firms and individuals that produce media content and the remuneration should be democratic, based on people’s self-chosen use of media content. In the digital content realm, the remuneration can be automatic when transactions are triggered by real identifiable individuals’ use of media-content, and when the payments are made to real identifiable owners and producers of the media-content. Addressing the issue of privacy, it should be noted just as is done by Statistics Canada, general measurements can me made without tracking individuals’ identities.

    I am not talking about a total socialization of media industries, just the access arm of the industry. I am fine with the production arm of the media industries remaining a mix of for profit and nonprofit organizations with part of their revenue streams coming from both public and private donations or grants, but mainly I see the production industries being sustained by use based royalties being paid by the public access service (The Digital Public Library).

    The argument for making democracy stronger and fairer, by publicly funding a digital public library service, is probably most important for everyone to understand.

    Why is it not recognized that within what we call “the media” there are two very different industries, the production industry and the access to content industry?

    Why is assumed that the access to content industry can best serve the public if it is provided by private businesses that finance their access enterprise with advertising or subscriptions as opposed to having a publicly funded but independent media content access service?

    I have several questions regarding the financing of media access services that seem to be being ignored or overlooked.

    It is assumed the commercial system we are using is overall economically beneficial. There is no hard proof that it is. I have a hunch it is not at all of economic benefit to ordinary people.
    We need an academic study with hard data showing that the commercial system is or is not raising people’s cost of living.
    We need a study to show that a publicly funded system would or would not lower the cost of living by more than it would cost in taxes to fund a public system.
    We need to show that it is true or not true that the constant exposure to advertising creates artificial demand. (It makes people want things they would not naturally be wanting).
    We need to show that it is true on not true that the resulting artificial demand raises the cost of living for ordinary people and by how much.
    We need a good explanation, that if it is not coming ultimately out of consumers’ pockets, then where are the billions of dollars coming from that are seen as profits by the major commercial digital platforms that have monopolized the media-content-access industry?
    Cost is of course important but even if my hunch is wrong that relying on a commercial system makes life more costly, what should we be willing to pay to have a strong and fair democracy?

    Not only as a more economically efficient communications system but also as a system that strengthens democracy I am proposing that we should create a new public service through legislation. I call this public service —

    The Digital Public Library Proposal

    Thank you
    Breezy Brian Gregg

Trackbacks

  1. Philanthropy funding of journalism: a noble corruption – Human as Media
  2. Philanthropy funding of journalism: noble corruption – Human as Media
  3. Postjournalism: Subjective modality in the guise of objective modality – Human as Media
  4. Rage on social media: signaling intensities instead of feelings – Human as Media
  5. The eternal failure of selling news – Human as Media
  6. How both old and new media polarise society for profit (or survival) – Human as Media
  7. The hamsterization of journalism and cannibalism of news teasers – Human as Media

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