RALEIGH — Is the market for news and information in North Carolina overly concentrated in a few hands?
In recent years, I’ve heard complaints from both the Left and the Right about the effects of media mergers and acquisitions on the diversity of North Carolina news outlets and editorial viewpoints. My own view is that while most daily newspapers and broadcast outlets in the state are produced by left-leaning journalists, that’s nothing new. North Carolina has traditionally had a more liberal media culture than other states in our region. Love it or hate it, it’s not a new trend.
Nor is it obvious to me, as a longtime columnist and news consumer in the state, that the trend towards consolidation of media ownership has resulted in a narrower range of viewpoints being expressed. Media consolidation may have other negative consequences for readers — as well as important positive consequences, such as the very survival of newspapers in some communities — but I just don’t see any evidence that it has constrained the course of political debate in North Carolina.
That a shrinking number of chains controls a larger share of the state’s media outlets is undeniable. Our five largest-circulation newspapers used to be owned by five different companies. Now California-based McClatchy owns The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh, while Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway owns the The News & Record of Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Journal. Only The Fayetteville Observer remains independently owned.
Still, it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of the trend. There are dozens of daily newspapers in North Carolina, plus many more weeklies and semi-weeklies. By my latest count, the total print circulation of newspapers published for general audiences in the state is about 2 million. (Because each copy of a paper can be read by more than one person, “readership” is a different metric from circulation, and may be twice as large or more. I’ll be conservative, naturally, and stick to circulation.)
McClatchy’s newspapers (including suburban editions) account for about a fifth of the state’s total circulation. The next three largest chains in the state in circulation — Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway (11 papers), Florida-based Halifax Media (11 papers, including the Wilmington Star-News), and Kentucky-based Paxton Media (nine papers, including the Durham Herald-Sun) — account for another fifth of the total.
That means about 60 percent of North Carolina newspaper circulation is accounted for by other companies in the marketplace. One of them is Civitas Media, which owns 15 papers with a combined circulation of 80,000 in such communities ranging from Lumberton in the southeast to Mt. Airy in the northwest. It has a corporate office in Davidson, as well as an operations center in Ohio.
Another is Cooke Communications of Greenville, which owns the Daily Reflector, the Rocky Mount Telegram, the Daily Advance in Elizabeth City, the Duplin Times in Kenansville, and eight smaller papers with a combined circulation of 83,000. Still another company, Boone Newspapers of Alabama, owns The Salisbury Post, the Washington Daily News, and five other papers with a combined circulation of 52,000. Community Newspapers Inc., a Georgia company that specializes in running small community newspapers, has nine North Carolina properties serving a total circulation of 45,000.
There also remain quite a few independently published newspapers and small, family-owned chains based in North Carolina. In addition to The Fayetteville Observer (circulation 45,000), other substantial locally owned operations include the Carolina Weekly chain of suburban papers around Charlotte (combined circulation of about 60,000) as well as the alt-weeklies Rhino Times in Greensboro (35,000), Yes Weekly in the Triad (43,000), Independent Weekly in the Triangle (45,000), Mountain Xpress in Asheville (28,000), and the Tribune papers in Asheville, Hendersonville, and Weaverville (25,000). By my count, newspapers owned by North Carolina-based companies account for 45 percent of the state’s total circulation.
Now, I’m not saying that print circulation is the whole story. The N&O and Charlotte Observer draw hundreds of thousands of eyeballs to their websites and play a disproportionate role in the reading habits of state politicos. But there’s no need to punch the panic button. North Carolinians have media alternatives, including the very publication you are reading right now. And even though Raleigh and Charlotte are large and growing places, most North Carolinians still live and consume their local media elsewhere.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.