Local News Consolidation: Explained

Last year, a video by Timothy Burke, then of Deadspin, went viral. In it, hundreds of local news anchors—the majority male and overwhelmingly white—repeat the exact same monologue about “fake news”. For a brief, bizarre moment, hundreds of local news anchors across the country suddenly adopted the Donald Trump theory of media bias in unison.

Earlier reporting by CNN’s Brian Stelter uncovered the reason for this national dogwhistle to the Trumpian culture war. Evidentially, all the stations were owned by the same company, Sinclair Broadcasting, who provided the promo script and mandated station anchors read it. According to Stelter, guidelines that came with the script instructed stations to run the statement often “to create maximum reach and frequency.”

The  clip set off a brief firestorm around Sinclair’s increasing control of local news television. And while Sinclair was and is the owner of the largest number of local television stations in the country, it is far from the only company tightening its ownership of local news. Consolidation in the local television industry has rapidly increased over the last two decades. Research by Saving Community Journalism shows the same is true for the newspaper industry, albiet over a longer period of time.

Consolidation represents a threat to the quality and breadth of local news coverage. Studies show that local political reporting and local reporting generally has declined in correlation with the narrowing of local news ownership. Reports from inside stations owned by some of these corporations suggest a lack of interest in objective reporting. Layoffs plague newsrooms owned by these huge companies, even while those at the executive level thrive. All the while, the current regulatory environment enabled by the Trump-era FCC is supporting efforts to further consolidate ownership.

In the crisis-plagued American local news business, consolidation represents one of the most serious threats. Here’s why.

What is local news consolidation and why are people worried about it?

When people talk about local news consolidation, they are generally referring to the consolidation of multiple local television stations aby single, large companies. The same term can also be applied to the newspaper industry, which in its decline has seen increasing consolidation. Both have unique characteristics that are worth discussing, although local television news is currently the more influential medium, and the some of the consolidation efforts in the television industry appear to be more ideological. The inherent risk of media consolidation is that it threatens the quality and ideology of local news.

In the newspaper industry, consolidation has been tied to decrease in the quality of journalism and the amount of local news actually in the paper (large networks often syndicate stories from other papers, resulting in more national coverage and less localized reporting). This era of newspaper consolidation began in the 1950s when papers began to transition from a family-ownership model to a multiple paper “chain” model, and rapidly expanded during the fall of the newspaper industry as a whole in the mid-2000s.

Consolidation is enabled by decades of gradual deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting. In 1999, the FCC began to allow a single company to own multiple television stations in the same market, producing a spike in what The University of Texas study dubbed "duopolies". In 2003, a major attempt at deregulating local media consolidation by the FCC was narrowly struck down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. A more moderate version of the proposal was passed in 2007. The FCC claimed that allowing companies to own more channels increased the quantity and quality of local news by giving the companies more resources and capital. Researchers at the time disagreed, concluding that these larger companies actually produced less news coverage. A Washington Post analysis from 2018 found broad similarities in the nightly news cast of three Sinclair-associated channels in the same area. Often, the networks would air the same video package on all three networks.

In the local television industry, most public attention regarding consolidation has been focused on Sinclair. This is for good reason; Sinclair has spent the past two decades building a vast network of local stations across the country. Often, these channels express a conservative political bias that appears to be mandated by their parent company. A report by Sheelah Kolhatkar for the New Yorker reported that “Sinclair employees say that the company orders them to air biased political segments produced by the corporate news division, including editorials by the conservative commentator Mark Hyman, and that it feeds interviewers questions intended to favor Republicans.” Sinclair has hired a number of former Trump officials as on-air and production staff, and allegedly struck a deal with the 2016 Trump Campaign to provide positive coverage in exchange for interviews with their local stations.

Who are the companies leading the consolidation effort?

Sinclair Broadcast Group

Employees: 8400

The nation's largest owner of television channels with a documented conservative bent

What To Know

Principal Business: Local television channels

Ownership Number193 stations across over a hundred markets

Gannett

The largest newspaper publisher is facing layoffs and relying increasingly on syndication

Principal Business: Local newspapers and USA Today

Ownership Number109 local papers

Employees: 19000

What To Know

Tribune Publishing

Principal Business: Major market newspapers

The company formerly known as Tronc is in crisis

Ownership Number13 daily papers, several dozen regional weeklies
Reach: 8 states

Employees: 8058

What To Know

Nexstar Media Group

Principal Business: Local broadcast stations

Could this be the next largest broadcaster?

Ownership Number171 stations
Reach: 39% of households

Employees: 4500

What To Know

How is the Trump administration helping?

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Beyond the direct ties between Trump and Sinclair, the President’s administration has aided in the consolidation of the local news industry by appointing conservative FCC commissioners. The current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai (pictured above), has undertaken an agenda that the tech blog BoingBoing called an orgy of deregulation. In 2017, the FCC voted to eliminate protections that limited the amount of consolidation allowed in a single market. Perhaps even more ominously, the commission struck down the Main Studio Rule, a decades old stature that required owners of a TV or radio station to maintain a main studio in the town the station primarily broadcast in. Neiman Labs speculated at the time that the ruling could lead to local news stations that lacked an actual studio in the towns they purportedly covered.

Where is this all going?

Despite the increase in consolidation in the local television space, there is some reason to believe the trend will slow in the future. At the very least, it appears that the natural movements of American media consumption will make consolidation less important.

Consider a policy decision, made by the FCC last year, that suggests that the regulatory body may be reaching its limits on what it will allow in terms of consolidation. Sinclair spent a good part of last year attempting to buy Tribune Media, a large owner of television stations throughout the country. Even by the lax regulatory standards of the Trump FCC, the proposed merger was audacious; the merger would’ve given Sinclair access to approximately a third of American homes. And Sinclair’s concession to regulatory law, a proposed sale of several stations that would have left Sinclair in defacto control of the station’s business operations and programming, was described by former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in an interview with Politico as recurring “the suspension of regulatory disbelief. … It borders on a regulatory fraud.” Despite this, the deal was expected by many in the industry to go through, right up until Ajit Pai effectively killed it on June 17th, 2019, sending it to another round of litigation hearings. A month later, Tribune pulled out of the deal and sued Sinclair for breach of contract, alleging “belligerent and unnecessarily protracted negotiations with DOJ and the FCC over regulatory requirements.”

The implosion of the deal---albeit perhaps more an example of Sinclair’s hubris than a newfound antitrust backbone in the FCC---suggests that the agency does have its limits of what it will accept in local media consolidation. This theory will be tested in the coming months, as Tribune undergoes another attempted purchase, this time to Nexstar. While this proposed deal will still create the largest local media network in the country, it is being handled in a more conventional way than the Sinclair deal. A regulatory decision is still pending.

The other reason to believe media consolidation may have reached its peak is based on cultural trends. As we’ve explored elsewhere in this project, the audience for local television news is declining. While this decline has not been as sudden as newspapers, it is tangible and growing. In other words, local television consolidation may matter less because at a certain point less people will rely pn it as a news source. This may already be true for newspapers.

Consolidation is a grim reality, one that will lead to worse coverage in towns across the country as media companies continue to expand.