Media monopoly or oversupply?

(Note: this was reposted in advance to cover a brief vacation from all things electronic.)
During questions after a 90-minute discussion of the “The Coming Media Monopoly”, a man rose and said he was not a journalist but was an avid media consumer. What media monopoly was being talked about, he asked? His San Francisco neighborhood was served by a dozen newspapers from 11 different owners. He could get cable or satellite television, Internet news and so on. It was the perfect counterpoint to the prevailing gloom that radiated from the speakers’ panel — and which I more or less share — that whether for good or ill mass media ownership is increasingly concentrated in a handful of corporations. Yet the man from San Francisco is right. We are submerged in media because everybody can make it. Media are flourishing. Journalism, especially paid journalism, may be suffering, but that is a subset of the mediascape.

Of the five speakers on the panel, Stephen Buel, editor of the East Bay Express, aimed his remarks most closely at this conundrum that journalism is hurting while media flourish. “We are an industry that needs some economic efficiencies,” he told the crowd of more than 100 persons. “Companies that are good at cost cutting are going to survive.”

I was fascinated to hear Brad Westerhold-Arroyo, publisher of San Francisco-based El Mensajero, explain why his family-owned newspaper recently joined the Spanish-language chain Impremedia. English mass media chains have been starting Spanish outlets and so selling el Mensajero into a chain that was sympatico became the if-you-can-beat ’em- join-each-other strategy. “It’s about building Spanish-language journalism across the country,” said Westerhold-Arroyo, describing Impremedia as a five-newspaper chain looking to expand into 20 metropolitan areas.

Panelist Sandy Close was refreshingly offbeat as indeed she has been during some 40 years of running alternative journalism outfits. “I’ve struggled to meet the payroll every month for 38 years,” she said in response to one question. But her message was that ethnic, alternative and youth media were creating new forms of multimedia expression that stand in contrast to print and prose. “Poetry is the throb of the youth culture,” she said, painting media not as a series of pedantic exercises but rather as instruments of self-expression, validation and community-building. “To be invisible in a media culture” is painful for young people, said Close. The recent demonstrations around immigration, she said, show that many young and ethnic people believe that “to have a voice is more important than to have a vote.”

I don’t mean to give short shrift to Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley, who came across as tough, smart, principled and pragmatic, nor to Tim Remond, editor of the beleaguered and still-independent Bay Guardian. But I’ve got to wrap up this volunteer effort and do something to pay the bills. I am a Newspaper Guild member, FYI, and listening to Foley all I can say is, “You go girl.” As for Redmond, he sat literally elbow-to-elbow with Buel, who is ultimately employed by New Times the chain that Bay Guardian has sued for alleged predatory advertising pricing. “For me it’s a no brainer consolidation is a bad thing,” said Redmond, who predicted eventual collusion between Hearst Corp. (my corporate employer) and MediaNews, which just acquired a dominant position in the San Francisco daily newspaper market with assistance from Hearst.

Moderator and San Francisco State University journalism professor Erna Smith opened the panel with an allusion to the “incestuous” relationships between media people, a telling remark that calls to mind the adage, “who’s watching the watchers.” How indeed can the increasingly important, concentrated and powerful media industry be expected — or trusted — to cover itself? That independent oversight is the goal of the 30-year-old Media Alliance, one of the sponsors of the panel.

In a fitting end to this exercise in journalistic soul-searching, the organizers passed a collection basket. It was like a secular come-to-Jesus meeting. I threw in five bucks and left feeling cleansed.