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Who Owns the Media? BY JIM LEE AND ERIC BATES Rp ICHARD ELAM is bucking a trend. He is one of only four independent newsaper publishers .along the entire Texas Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi to the Louisiana line. For hundreds of miles, all the rest of the papers are owned by corporate chains. In Texas, as in the rest of the South, newspapers and broadcast outlets are increasingly owned by vast media chains like Hearst, Scripps-Howard and Gannett, as well as by smaller groups like Freedom Newspapers and Harte-Hanks Communications. In the face of such growing corporate control, Elam and his partner Fred Barbee have stubbornly held on to two small-town weeklies the Wharton Journal-Spectator and the El Campo NewsLeader. It is not because they have no choice. “We have a standing offer” from a chain to buy the newspapers, Elam says. All he has to do is say “yes” and his papers will be gobbled up, too. The trend toward group ownership is not new. In 1975, when Southern Exposure first looked at media ownership, 65 daily newspapers in Texas were group-owned. Today the number has grown to 74 of the 97 dailies in Texas; chains own 76 percent of the daily newspapers and control 84 percent of the daily newspaper circulation. Over the same period, group ownership of Texas television stations has nearly doubled, from 32 stations to 59, or 58 percent of TV stations. The trend toward group ownership also is reflected in cable TV, where 12 28 cable systems in Texas with more than 20,000 subscribers. Other Southern states differ only in degree. From Texas to West Virginia, more and more media outlets have fallen under the control of fewer and fewer corporations. Since 1975, the number of group-owned daily newspapers in the region has grown from 248 to Jim Lee teaches in the department of radio, television, and motion pictures at the University of North Carolina. John Bare, a graduate student in journalism at the school, and James Cullen, associate editor of The Observer, contributed to this article. Eric Bates is editor of Southern Exposure. A version of this article originally appeared in Southern Exposure, a quarterly journal of politics and culture published by the Institute for Southern Studies. To subscribe, send $24 to P.O. Box 531, Durham, N.C. 27702. 318 an increase of 28 percent. The number of chain-owned TV stations has jumped from 126 to 244 a leap of 94 percent. Overall, corporate chains now own 70 percent of all daily papers and 54 percent of all television stations in the South. The top 20 corporations alone control more than half of all dailies and the region. With large corporations in command of the media, industry observers say, it should come as no surprise that most news and information is filtered through a pro-business perspective. The result has been a kinder, gentler treatment of corporate America by the media and an increasing emphasis on making money over informing the public. “There’s no question that most newspapers have become much more bottom-line oriented even the ones we think of as quality newspapers,” William Winter of the American Press Institute told the Washington Journalism Review. “We hear a lot of editors talking about staffs being cut back. Editors are having to fight harder to get any kind of increase. All of this is the direct result of the corporatization of American journalism.” Media Barons Media barons have a long and potent history in the United States. From William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to S.I. Newhouse and Rupert Murdoch, powerful and sometimes ruthless men have started their own newspapers or simply seized control of those started by others. Their rise began over a century ago, when trains and telegraphs liberated people from the confines of hometowns and created a greater need for news and information. One of the first to see the moneymaking potential of the press was J.E. Scripps. In 1878, having turned the Detroit Evening News into a profitable business, Scripps quickly started up a second newspaper in Cleveland. Within two years the Scripps Publishing Co. owned eight newspapers from Buffalo to St. Louis. John Knight, an Ohio investor, started a series of raids on Southern newspapers in 1937, when he took over the Miami Herald for $3 million. In a frontpage column, Knight promised that the paper would serve the public, “uncontrolled by any group.” But group control of the hometown newspaper is exactly what came to Miami, along with nearly every other city in the country. In 1900, the nation supported 2,042 daily newspapers and 2,023 publishers. Today there are only 1,650 dailies nationwide and all but 300 are owned by corporate chains. Indeed, five companies now control more than a third of all newspaper circulation nationwide. Among the modern media barons are Scripps-Howard and Knight-Ridder the corporate descendants of the earliest entrepreneurs as well as the Gannett, Newhouse, and Tribune companies. Such media giants have not been content to merely increase their control of newspapers, however. In recent years, they have extended their reach to radio, television and cable systems, and are now positioning themselves for the arrival of fiber-optic networks and high-definition television. Consider a few of the megadeals of the past decade: Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta-based Cable News Network and SuperStation WTBS, bought MGM/UA Entertainment in 1985. The 10 percent of all TV stations in 12 JANUARY 29, 1993