HBO’s Succession, which recently won a Golden Globe for Best Television Drama, centers on the Roy family, essentially a fictionalized version of Rupert Murdoch’s family empire. Most of the drama revolves around patriarch, Logan, and his children’s efforts to take over his media empire after his death. It truly is an example of art imitating life, as the media landscape portrayed on the show reflects a number of trends we’ve seen play out in the real world in recent years.
The vast majority of Logan Roy’s media empire consists of traditional media outlets like newspapers and TV stations. Regulatory changes from the 1990’s and 2000’s enabled the growth of media conglomerates comparable to Succession’s fictional Waystar-Royco. In 1996, the FCC allowed radio companies to own more and more stations, including multiple stations in the same market, a change that allowed companies like Clear Channel to buy up hundreds of local outlets.
During the George W. Bush administration, there was a push to allow media corporations to own multiple print and TV outlets in the same market. The battle over these regulations lasted for years, but eventually more consolidation was allowed, and the trend towards greater media consolidation has continued in recent years.
As a result of that large scale consolidation of traditional media, corporations dramatically increased their reach, and homogenized the news that most viewers receive. Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon came in 2018 when Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s largest TV broadcaster, required anchors at all of its nearly 200 stations to read from an identical script warning viewers about so-called “fake news.”
Sinclair’s coverage has a strongly conservative bent, and according to a recent study, “when Sinclair buys a local station, its local news programs begin to cover more national and less local politics, the coverage becomes more conservative, and viewership actually falls — suggesting that the rightward tilt isn’t enacted as a strategy to win more viewers but as part of a persuasion effort.” Until recently, Sinclair required all of its affiliates to run syndicated commentary segments featuring a former aide to President Donald Trump.
Mass media consolidation not only impacts the impartiality of news coverage, it also impacts the scope and quality of the coverage at the impacted outlets. As Ceisler Media Managing Director Kurt Knaus noted in a recent blog post, bigger is not always better when it comes to local news. As large media corporations focus more on the bottom line, reporting positions are cut. In 2019 alone, 7,800 media jobs were lost, in comparison to only 5,000 between 2014 and 2017.
The internet has been impacting the media industry for years, and a number of digital outlets were able to rise to prominence and challenge the old guard. But these outlets have faced challenges as well.
In Succession, Logan Roy’s son, Kendall, acquires a digital property known as Vaulter. It’s essentially a stand-in for the now defunct Gawker, which was destroyed by a vindictive lawsuit backed by Peter Thiel, who was upset about Gawker’s previous coverage of his personal life. Once the lawsuit succeeded, the other properties of Gawker Media Group were sold to Univision, which sold it to a private equity firm called Great Hill Partnersless than three years later.
In a prescient piece that was published just after the episode of Succession in which the Roys decided to kill Vaulter, an editor at Deadspin, one of the former Gawker Media Group properties included in the sale to Great Hill, compared their new private equity bosses unfavorably to the Roys. She predicted new ownership would destroy what had made Deadspin a success.
Just a few months later, her predictions proved accurate. Deadspin was a blog primarily about sports, but it also covered diverse issues such as culture, politics, and the media. Under new management, Deadspin editorial staff were ordered to “stick to sports,” a directive that angered many of the staff, who argued that Deadspin’s wide-ranging subject matter was integral to its success. After a series of escalations between management and editorial staff, the Deadspin staff quit en masse. Great Hill’s newly appointed CEO tried writing posts that “stuck to sports” himself for a couple days, but was unable to find anyone to come write for them. Now, nothing new has been posted to the site since November 4, 2019.
So what comes next? Here in Pennsylvania we have several promising experiments in nonprofit journalism that may prove to be the model for ensuring comprehensive, impartial news coverage going forward. Most prominent among these efforts are those backed by the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit organization that now owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition to the Inquirer, Lenfest is supporting an investigative reporting operation called Spotlight PA, which has provided an infusion of talented reporters to a Capitol press corps that had become depleted in recent years.
Spotlight PA is a collaborative effort among the Philadelphia Inquirer, Harrisburg Patriot-News and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Media organizations collaborating to pool resources and expand the audience for their coverage has become a trend in Pennsylvania. The Steinman Foundation, which owns Lancaster Newspapers, launched a Capitol-focused investigative outfit called The Caucus, which later partnered with PA Post, a collaborative effort led by WITF, Harrisburg’s public media outlet. Additionally, nonprofit outlets likePublic Sourceand thePennsylvania Capital-Star have recently launched, bringing hyper-focused coverage on the Pittsburgh region and the state Capitol, respectively.
In an ever-shifting media landscape, organizations wanting to ensure their message reaches its intended audience will have to craft a sophisticated approach to media strategy. At Ceisler Media, we have the expertise necessary to tailor your approach so that your message won’t get lost in the mix. We always have an eye on the media landscape, and stand ready to help you influence the debate. At least until Cousin Greg figures out how to leverage artificial intelligence to take over the world.
Drew Murren is an Senior Associate in Ceisler Media's Harrisburg office.