Ten major media companies control most of the news content in America. Each of these companies reaches millions of people. The five largest reach more than 50 million people each.
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.”