Discussions about news media in America often focus on two main issues. The first is whether the news is influenced by one person or family who owns a controlling interest in the media company. Sumner Redstone owns voting control of Viacom Inc. (NASDAQ: VIAB) and CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS). The Sulzberger family has controlled The New York Times Company (NYSE: NYT) for over a century.
The second is whether the personalities who deliver the news also influence it. People like Brian Williams, Rush Limbaugh and Oprah Winfrey are believed to be able to express their opinions on facts and events. While this may be true, their influence is also fleeting. Keith Obermann, the central personality at MSNBC for years, quit the network and can no longer be found on air.
The most objective way to measure who controls the content and distribution of news is by looking at audience size. How many people watch a media company’s network news or cable news, read its magazines, listen to or watch its local news channels, or go to its websites? Research firms that independently track traffic and viewership include Nielsen for TV, the Audit Bureau of Circulations for newspapers and Comscore for online traffic.
What helps build audience size across news media? The largest factor is likely branding. Nearly all the companies that control the news are themselves a recognized news brand, or they own powerful brands: CBS is its own brand, Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ: CMCSA) owns NBC and Gannett Co. Inc. (NYSE: GCI) owns USA Today. News brands in most cases have reputations that have been built over decades.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Tom Rosenstiel, Director of Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism observed, “These are mostly familiar brands that have been in the marketplace for a long time, and that have been engaged in repertorial journalism. As a consequence, they offer things that consumers really can’t find anywhere else.”
These powerful news brands also have been created at great cost, making it hard for new entrants to compete effectively with them. The number of brands spending money on gathering news has not grown a great deal, according to Rosenstiel. Those that do tend to spend money are “legacy media.” They have “a number of reporters who know how to call people up, report, observe events with press passes,” and have a “shoe leather, boots-on-the-ground orientation.”
The composition of media property ownership reflects how Americans consume news today. Most of the largest brands have only a fraction of their business in magazines or radio, which once represented a much larger share of American media. None of the largest media companies derive more than 10% of total audience from newspapers, and five do not have any presence at all in the medium. Meanwhile, eight of the largest media corporations have at least 20% of total viewership from local TV, and seven of the ten have at least 15% of total viewers online.
As a measure of audience and news content broadcast at the local level, in individual cities, is just as important as news broadcast nationally because of the overall size of the country’s combined local markets. Many of the largest news organizations own televisions stations in the country’s most populated cities. Some companies have dozens of local radio stations. Others own dozens of newspapers. A large media company may offer news access to millions of people, even if it does not have a single national news outlet such as a television network, a widely visited website or a national magazine or newspaper.
Based on Pew’s State of the News Media report, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 companies that control the news in America. We considered newspaper circulation, television viewership at the national and local level, radio audience and online traffic. Unless otherwise indicated, all figures related to viewership are as of June 2012. In several cases, the media companies surveyed only gave Pew the audience size for their largest property. Where this was the case, the sizes of the total online audience and the largest online property were recorded as identical. Companies that have the greatest effect on news consumption are those that own media across several of these property types. For example, CBS, which is the biggest media company by audience, owns network television, local television, local radio and national Internet businesses. Together, these CBS outlets reach over 130 million people, an extraordinary number given that the entire population of the United States is about 315 million.