Sam Lebovic on the History of Newspaper Consolidation

Professor Sam Lebovic has published an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review on the history of newspaper consolidation in the United States. He is the author of Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America, published in March by Harvard University Press. Here is the beginning of the essay:

THIS WEEK’S ANNOUNCEMENT that Gannett is seeking to purchase Tribune Publishing seems, at first glance, to encapsulate the plight of the newspaper industry in the wake of the internet. The size of the proposed merger might be surprising—it would leave Gannett with a circulation of 62 million—but its logic feels inevitable. As the newspaper industry has been buffeted by the collapse of advertising revenue, publishers have merged, newspapers have closed, and newsrooms have been downsized. Publishers, and their shareholders, seek efficiencies of scale in tough times. The internet is killing newspaper diversity. 

In fact, the origins of the current round of consolidation lie in forgotten clashes over newspaper regulation in the 1930s and 1940s, when New Deal reformers sought policy solutions that would promote a more diverse newspaper economy. These efforts were fought and ultimately defeated by newspaper publishers, who argued that an unregulated newspaper market was essential to a free press. Among the chief opponents of the reforms were Robert McCormick, the larger-than-life publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and Frank Gannett, president of Gannett Newspapers.

Newspaper consolidation is not new. The US actually had its highest number of papers in 1909, and newspaper diversity has been declining ever since. In 1914 alone, 54 newspapers merged. Between 1919 and 1942, the number of papers in the US fell by 14 percent, despite a 29 percent increase in the nation’s population, and those remaining papers were increasingly joined in chains. By 1933, 63 newspaper chains controlled 37 percent of the nation’s daily circulation.

Read the rest at the Columbia Journalism Review.