“The Rendell Inquirer: the specter of instrumentaliation of American news media”

Around the world, Roskilde University’s Rasmus Kleis Nielsen argues, it’s common for newspapers to be viewed as the political tools of their owners. A sale of The Philadelphia Inquirer might be a sign that a similar model is on the march in the United States.

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Nieman Journalism Lab

“The possible sale of the Philadelphia Media Network — publisher of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com — has sparked a debate over editorial independence. That’s because the potential buyers include powerful local Democrats like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and the New Jersey power broker George Norcross, along with various local property and business magnates. Journalists working for the company worry that their newsrooms will become subject to the wider political and business interests of the new owners.

“The debate raises a larger question: What happens when news organizations become less commercially valuable, but are still perceived as politically powerful?

“Columbia’s Michael Schudson has outlined one scenario for the future of the U.S. news business he calls ‘journalism on a diet with supplements.’ The diet is the continued decline of newspapers as their revenues shrink; the supplements are new online ventures of various sorts.

“The situation in Philadelphia suggests that another scenario is possible — one where news organizations are kept alive, sustained by new forms of cross-subsidy that gradually pull journalism back towards its origins as, at least in part, an instrument for outside political and business interests.

“This is what media and communications scholars call ‘instrumentalization,’ where news organizations are owned and operated by groups less concerned with the day-to-day profitability of an independent outlet than with the influence media afford — the ability to advance various political or business interests. (And often both, for those involved in regulation-sensitive areas like real estate, telecommunications, and various forms of government-related contracting.) News media acquisitions in the U.S. are still mainly seen in a narrow business perspective, explained in terms of their real estate assets or brand value. But one should not forget that controlling a media company also holds out the promise of something more primordial than quarterly profits: power.

“Instrumentalization is not something confined to the distant past or to poor countries far away. The first several generations of Chandlers were notorious for using The Los Angeles Times to benefit their real estate speculation. James M. Cox built what is now the Cox Media Group by mixing politics, business, and journalism, in Dayton and elsewhere. Some suggest that Rupert Murdoch continues to bankroll the loss-making New York Post because he can use it to influence politicians who might otherwise interfere with the varied activities … Read this article in its entirety here.

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