Heidi Legg of Harvard University’s Future of Media project examines who owns the news in the US.
Once, we knew who owned our news sources. For many big newspapers, we still do: the Sulzbergers at The New York Times, Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, the Murdochs at The Wall Street Journal, and so on.
But “news” comes from many sources these days, and the ownership of many of those sources is far too obscure – even unknowable. That needs to end. I have created a set of indices at Harvard to bring light to the chaos.
A deluge of information is pounding us daily from a mind-boggling number of sources, many freewheeling and unfiltered and not journalism.
A plethora of content producers seem to care more about being influential than informative, while others seem intent on dismantling our trust in journalism altogether. Who is a reporter and who is an influencer? Who peddles evidence-based news and who amplifies OpEds?
Pew Research tracks trust in the media and their latest numbers are not good: less than half of Americans trust the news and 72% of US adults say news organizations do an insufficient job revealing their funding sources.
This opens the box for a lot of mistrust. Who is making money or benefiting from a particular lens? Is an agenda being set?
Awash in new digital media, we need a map. The goal is not to make some bold claim, but rather, press for radical transparency and to understand who calls themselves news. If readers knew who owned these newsrooms, then perhaps they would feel less duped. Could bold transparency rebuild trust in news?
This media mosh pit has been 20 years in the making. Blame for the decline in newsrooms across the nation was assigned to Craigslist, Autotrader (whose profits now fund The Guardian), and then Google and Facebook for having built the greatest ad machine ever and taking all the revenue with them.
Many believe journalism simply lost to a new digital era, while others believe big tech should pay for news given they profit massively from the revenue model that once ensured it. You can believe both.
On 1 October 2020 Google announced that after 23 years, with global regulation looming, that it had earmarked $1 billion to pay for news through its new Showcase News program.
It is a benevolent three-year transfer fee versus a regulated formula, long-demanded by journalism. But that is often the result of an asymmetrical relationship.
Murdoch pressed for the formula in Australia early this year, until he negotiated what he needed for himself.
In light of this chaos, I have created a US Media Ownership Index that lists 175 mainstream media companies and an Index of 230 Emerging Nonprofit Newsrooms.
The mainstream media index includes both parent companies (like Gannett, Sinclair, NPR, and PBS) and standalone titles (like The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Commentary, and The US Spectator).
Once you tally all of their subsidiaries, along with the 1000 NPR stations and over 600 daily newspapers across the country (half are owned by seven parent companies, which I also index by state) and the nonprofits, we land somewhere close to 3,000 newsrooms across America. Not all tend to the tenets of journalism, but most do.
Google, Facebook, and tech billionaires have remedied cries for journalism by randomly funding new nonprofits, while Silicon Valley VCs like Andreessen Horowitz build out Substack and more user-generated content, which is fine so long as we can track their funding and apply some editorial standards. Worth noting, the platforms’ media populism also conveniently protects their revenue model.
In a few short years, 230 emerging digital nonprofit newsrooms (and growing) have been funded by Facebook, Google, and a multitude of millionaires and billionaires across the nation. Many have incredibly valiant objectives, albeit some of the topics may be possibly seen by half the country as partisan in these politically polarized times. Newsrooms dedicated exclusively to gun control, identity politics, climate change, solutions journalism (not the Amazon-factory-gives-jobs-to-destitute-town sort of solution, but you know, “solutions”), and investigative reporting round out this list.
In a time when politicians have politicised every ounce of our lives, I often wonder what this issue-motivated nonprofit funding will do to trust in news? It feels deeply problematic and precedence we may regret. A commercial revenue model or formula payment from platforms would certainly ensure more independence. While donors once ensured the great museums of the world stay afloat, the Uffizi is often in the dark.
The mainstream index portrays the major guardians in the national conversation of the US, and the few iconic media families who remain: The Roberts family owns Comcast, NBC, and MSNBC; the Ochs-Sulzbergers own the majority share votes in The New York Times, the Grahams still own Slate and Foreign Policy and Murdoch owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the NYPost.
New scions, hopefully, motivated to tend the garden of civic life, have arrived to dust off venerable titles: Jeff Bezos, the Henrys, the Georges, the Taylors, the Benioffs, Laurene Powell-Jobs, and even the widow of Peanuts, Jean Schultz, in Santa Rosa did her part. At least with sole owners, we know who to hold accountable. The new digital landscape is much harder to track.
Funding has long come in different forms. Many conservative publishers are funded by religious groups from The Deseret News by the Church of Latter-Day Saints to Commentary by the American Jewish Committee, and The Christian Science Monitor funded by the Church of Christ. The Epoch Times funded by the leader of the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong has spent $11M on Trump ads on Facebook.
Citizens United further muddies the well as dark money floats into partisan media companies who won’t reveal their backers. Looking at you Townhall, Breitbart, Newsmax, and Courier news. Digging for funders on nonprofit 990 forms is no easy task. It’s hard to keep the faith.
I am romantic enough to know that we have lost something vital in this mosh pit of noise and idealistic enough to know that we have something awesome on our hands in this new era of access to information and diverse voices.
Platforms need more transparency on who they currently pay in news and why they fund this emerging digital news outlet over another. I don’t yet see their funding as logical when we have 3,000 mainstream newsrooms looking to stay alive.
Facebook and Google should start here when deciding who and how to build a backbone of reliable news in this nation. The ownership funding makes it pretty clear who to discard. At least, 2,000 of them are pretty venerable newsrooms.
The question for me is how do we salvage what’s irrefutably valuable in journalism, while we embrace the possibilities of creating anew? Partisan news, a lack of trust in news, the platforms refusing a revenue formula for journalism, and a lack of standards for evidence-based news will become even more problematic as we approach 2024. I prefer knowing who to hold accountable when I read the news, especially when trying to ensure democracy prevails.
Who owns the US news? Top 25 biggest news organisations ranked by monthly website views (source Harvard University)
Note on methodology from Legg: “To give the index structure, we have chosen to use third-party tracking of monthly views, unless reported at the source. In the case of cable TV, we combined daily prime-time audiences with monthly views. Our ranking of traffic is by no means a perfect science. Our focus was on ownership.”
|Ranking||Publisher||Top owner/investor/donor||Monthly views|
|3||CNN||AT&T (Various shareholders)||482,000,000|
|4||EW Scripps Local TV||Comcast/Warren Buffet||333,000,000|
|5||ABC News||Disney (Robert I Iger)||300,000,000|
|6||NBC News||Comcast (Roberts family)||249,000,000|
|7||CBS News||Viacom CBS (Redstone family)||192,000,000|
|8||Yahoo News||Apollo Global Management||175,000,000|
|9||MSNBC||Comcast (Roberts family)||170,000,000|
|10||NPR||US tax $ plus donors||165,000,000|
|11||Hearst Communications||Hearst Family||161,438,000|
|12||Gannett||Gannet Co Inc||144,000,000|
|13||Forbes||Integrated Whale Media Investments||140,000,000|
|14||PBS||US tax $ plus donors||126,000,000|
|15||New York Post||Rupert Murdoch||106,850,000|
|17||Advance Publications||Newhouse family||100,000,000|
|18||Vox Media||Various investors||95,568,000|
|19||Insider||Axel Springer (Kravis,Roberts, Kolberg)||95,340,000|
|21||New York Times||Ochs-Sulzberger family||89,757,000|
|22||Nexstar Local TV News||Perry Sook||85,548,000|
|23||CNET||Red Ventures (Ric Elias)||83,340,000|
|24||Washington Post||Jeff Bezos||82,500,000|
|25||PBS NewsHour||US tax $ plus donors||81,000,000|