Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Media Tracker" a useful tool for identifying media competitors by locality

A useful research tool has been relaunched by the Center for Public Integrity as part of its Telecom and Media Ownership Project. Dubbed Media Tracker, it’s an enhanced data base that identifies media outlets in any geographic area as well as the ownership of each outlet. The data base includes newspapers, television, radio, cable and broadband providers.

So, for example, if you want to see the media outlets and their owners in Philadelphia, you might enter 19104. A map shows the location of broadcast towers and a summary identifies the five largest television licensees in the area. Links for many of the largest firms drill down further into the data base.

Media Tracker is a helpful tool, but is only a starting point for many of the needs of identifying media owners. The geographic region that is used seems to follow the FCC’s Grade B contour territory, which encompasses far more licensees than viewers can receive. For example, Philadelphia shows 17 full power stations, but those included in Reading, Trenton, Bethlehem and Allentown don’t reach most of the Philadelphia market area. And, of course, the 90% of households that receive TV by satellite or cable would not likely find their providers offering duplicate network stations in any event.

Similarly, the data base kicks out 55 daily newspapers within 100 miles of Philadelphia—which includes New York City and Asbury Park, NJ. But looking at the list recalled the Umbrella Model for newspaper circulation. This model, first described by Stanford economist James Rose in the mid-1970s, noticed that the newspaper market consists of four tiers, with the lower tiers competing with those above it. The top tier consists of metropolitan dailies having regional market coverage. In Philadelphia, that would be the Inquirer and the Daily News, late of Knight Ridder. The second tier consists of satellite city dailies, which differ from the first tier in that they have more confined markets. This could include the Courier-Post, based across the river in Cherry Hill, NJ or the News Journal, out of Wilmington, DE. A third tier is made up of suburban dailies around the metropolis and cities., such as the Burlington County (NJ) Times. The fourth tier includes weeklies and “shoppers.”

In looking at the newspapers in Media Tracker, this hierarchy of markets becomes more evident. While the residents and advertisers of Philadelphia can choose from the Inquirer or Daily News, both from the same owners, residents of Camden NJ might want (and many do) buy the Philadelphia papers—OR the Courier Post—OR both. Burlington residents will have ready access to either of those papers—ad well as the County Times. Region-wide advertisers have their choice as well.

Being able to pull out this type of data is a strength of Media Tracker. But it is still a work in progress. The ultimate service would take a given ZIP code and provide a list of what media are available in that ZIP: the outlets offered by the local cable company or other broadband provider, those available from the satellite services beamed to that area, only the newspapers that circulate there, the radio stations that can be received with any AM/FM radio. (Of course, the entire notion of local media availability is undermined to the extent that anything is available to anyone via the Internet).

But even as it is configured today, Media Tracker is a helpful resource. Whether it tells us there is more or less competition in media availability in any geographic area is in the hands of the researchers who will use it.

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