17 May 2003

The Media Owners

I think we have here, rather by accident, a rather interesting organising and campaigning tool...

What happened and how?

Two years ago, London Freelance Branch paid me £100 to upgrade the online Rate for the Job database. I did that. And I got carried away: more here if you're interested. This past month I've revisited the project.

The result is a database of 4750 titles and broadcast channels, the 102 media companies that own them, and a further 50 publishers, broadcasters and holding companies to be followed up. Because media ownership is so thorougly globalised, working outwards from the titles mentioned by London Freelance Branch members through their owners' other holdings has led so far to 2184 UK titles and 2566 elsewhere - from British Columbia via Germany to New Zealand.

I also took a running jump at tracking shareholdings: see for example the page on Scottish Media Group. The lesson seems to be that someone with advanced ability to ferret out companies' corporate websites - not the ones they present to the public - can research a Who owns what much, much faster than was possible just a few years ago.

What now?

Below, I list some thoughts on how this could be useful to the NUJ's efforts and, indeed, other unions' - to organise journalists, and freelances in particular. But I want to focus first on the Authors' Rights campaign.

At the same time as I started this, the NUJ agreed to take on compiling a survey of authors' rights ownership. Valiant efforts at signing up academic partners have not borne fruit.

I suspect that The Media Owners offers an alternative, do-it-ourselves approach. Exactly how it proceeds depends on clarifying the research objectives of the survey.

I think the questions driving the research are (1) who owns media "content" and (2) whether it is possible to succeed in publishing and broadcasting without grabbing all rights; so I forsee it going roughly like this:


Extend the list of titles and channels. I propose making a start by negotiating with Kidon Media Link, which has a quite amazing database of media outlets' websites (also apparently by accident).


Publicise the site and recruit collaborators - perhaps people to "adopt" publishers and log shareholdings etc.


Having compiled a more complete list of owners, conduct an IFJ (or, initially, EFJ) survey of member unions, asking them to rate each owner's Authors' Rights policies on an initial scale.


From the responses to 3, refine a systematic categorisation of policies - roughly speaking, a scale from "we license one use and pay you for everything else" to "all rights and your firstborn"


Obtain readership/viewership data for a date relevant to the survey response period. Historical data shouldn't be too expensive - I just downloaded May figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (UK) and March figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (NZ) for free (and that gives me a couple of hundred more titles to log...)


Write up the results. Output tables and correlations ad infinitum. I expect that it would be best to begin with one or two pilot areas: the EU and US come to mind.

We wouldn't necessarily do things in this order. It's a campaign. When we publicise which bit is important. Probably, the authors'-rights information won't appear on the public site for a while. Influencing media owners as we go along is important, though it affects the writing-up of the survey in interesting ways.

Though I haven't expressed it very clearly, one of the things that most interests me is the possibility of building this with elements of a collaborative, decentralised project. In order for the resulting reports to be coherent, however, they require an editor.

How else is it useful?

These are the thoughts I've had so far:


Another way for journalists to find campaign/network links. See the BBC and Guardian Media owner pages.


Ad-hoc exchange of trade union information. Unions and networks send links to their online articles about owners, and I list them. See for example the lists of articles at the bottom of the New York Times page. Note that the article database can handle stories from any publication and attribute them with a link to the organisation's homepage.


Publicising the concentration of media ownership feeds straight into an increasingly important arm of the Authors' Rights campaign - the matter of unfair contracts. And monpolistic practices or, in Brussels-speak, 'Abuse of a Dominant Position'.


More generally, I think publicising ownership information is effective in changing the climate in which journalists' unions operate - both on staff conditions and on journalists' authors' rights. A problem with the latter, in particular, is a tendency to present it as a two-sided issue - "the public" vs "rightsholders"


It could be a powerful tool for general online campaigning and awareness-raising.

Looking at the site readership statistics, this is clearly a magnet for people's searches for information on owners. Indeed, I just did a Google search for "Guardian Media Group" and my little page came up in the top ten links. (Click here to try it: results vary from day to day). Indeed, I've already had inquiries from trades unionists within Littlewoods, researching the Barclay Brothers and finding that this site is the Nº3 link in Google.


Somewhere I have some software that I could plug in to the database to produce pretty posters of who owns stakes in what... (The software was a review copy, intended for modelling ecosystems.)


The mark of a good technology is that it has uses its developers never dreamed of. What would you put on such a site?

So what do I want?



Feedback and suggestions. I've made this as short as I can. Please expand.


Money for development. Specifically, it seems to me that a cautious next step would be a pilot project taking up 30 days during the next three months, to test the feasability of completing ownership data for the UK and one or two other nominated countries.

What I propose, in the spirit of the Authors' Rights campaign, is a kind of licensing of the database to interested and supportive trades unions. Hence the "sponsor" links below, waiting for your logo.


Can the idea of a survey, and funding for same, to be fed into the IFJ/EFJ decision-making process now? Then we can be ready to go ahead if the pilot works out.

I look forward to your responses...

Mike Holderness

Updated & © 23 December 2002 Mike Holderness