February 26, 2003

Competition and Mediocrity

I've been on the road, I'm over deadline on a story and now I'm fighting a flu I'm sure I picked up while planebound for two hours on a DFW tarmac during an ice storm. That's why I missed Janet Kolodzy's rant in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday about the emptiness of the argument that competition in the news media results in higher quality journalism.

"Conservatives argue that competition allows the best to thrive. Liberals argue competition brings diversity. But the sorry state of news today proves they're both delusional. It's time to admit to the public what most people in the trenches of the news business already know: competition doesn't bring quality and diversity. Competition brings profits to shareholders and overhyped, underreported, mediocre journalism to the public."

Kolodzy, who teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston, argues that the current brouhaha over the FCC's pending reconsideration of media ownership regulations is a smokescreen that obscures the real issue: "Competition has led to copycat, lowest-common-denominator news."

Agreed. But even worse, most news organizations, and newspapers in particular because they generally operate in a monopoly environment, don't even understand what they should be competing against.

Hours of airtime and yards of newsprint are devoted to competitive coverage of the Big Story of the day - an unfortunate transplant, a missing woman, a president hell-bent on war - and the result is incremental additions of factoids that blend together to form an information generica. A newspaper must compete for mindshare by being different - not the same. Only then can it separate itself from the news noise and provide a unique voice for its community.

When Foreign Policy published a similar article last month, I asked: Does concentrated ownership also reduce the quality of journalism? [ Read "Is Big Media Really Bad News?" ]

Kolodzy puts the question another way: "The issue is not who owns the media; it is what they do with it."

UPDATE, Feb. 27: The AP reports that "rules that limit ownership of newspapers and radio and television stations are just months away from a broad overhaul that could pave the way for more media mergers and alter the landscape of news and entertainment programming."

 Christian Science Monitor Regulating the news

Posted by Tim Porter at February 26, 2003 08:22 PM

"The issue is not who owns the media; it is what they do with it."

At face value this makes sense. But the fewer the owners in a given market, the greater the leverage they have in doing whatever the hell they want to with it which invariably changes with various market pressures.

The fewer the owners, the greater the chance that a status-quo herd mentality dominates, and you get something very much like what we have right now in the US.

Posted by: skimble on February 28, 2003 12:29 PM
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