Newspaper ownership consolidation

April 10, 2014

News this week that the Jerusalem Post would buy the troubled Hebrew daily Maariv for $1.5 million comes on the heels of word that American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson will purchase the Israeli weekly Makor Rishon and NRG website for nearly $5 million. Adelson, a casino mogul, high-profile political contributor and prolific philanthropist, also owns the daily Israel Hayom, bankrolling it at a reported $14 million a year.

In this sense, the dream that Israel would be a nation like all others has come true. Israel appears to be going through the same print media consolidation as we are seeing in the U.S. and many other western nations. Thus, what some optimistically call “creative destruction” is now a fact of life in Israel, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages for news and media consumers. Closer to home, we’ve seen Amazon founder Jeff Bezos snap up The Washington Post for $250 million.

What are these billionaires thinking? Are they buying these vehicles for their investment value or for some other purpose? And if the latter, what for?

To be sure, the newspaper industry’s quarter-century decline, which picked up speed after the Internet radically changed our expectations about how we get our information, isn’t likely to stop. Readers now expect to pay nothing for the information they get and do much or most of their reading on electronic devices. Hard copies, with bleeding newsprint, are becoming much less popular. But getting enough eyeballs onto phones, tablets and computer screens in order to attract advertisers hasn’t proved as easy or as profitable as older-fashioned print advertising in the golden age of print media.

There was unquestionable value to “old media,” and maybe that is what the new wave of purchasers is seeking to regain. Newspapers and other “old media” traditionally served as the arbiter of public debate. They were the forum for the reports and opinions that helped shape public perception and views. Despite their private ownership, print newspapers and “old media” were considered quasi-public institutions that performed a civic good. With the proliferation of outlets like the Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Facebook and Twitter, there seems to be less need for “traditional” news sources, and much less demand for it.

But media ownership in fewer and fewer hands runs the risk of a homogenization of coverage and a reduction of competition between the remaining media companies. This is a concern that was expressed lately in Israel, where a thriving newspaper industry once existed. It is also a worry here as well.

While we admit to being old-fashioned enough to enjoy a printed copy of the daily paper, and a weekly copy of this one, what is really important is that the information we read is deep, well-researched, well-written and balanced. Let’s hope the new group of news moguls agree.

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