The recent changes at The Times-Picayune to stop publishing a daily paper and instead publish three days a week are unfortunate for the residents of the city and surrounding areas.

However, it was only a matter of time before this or something similar happened given what’s been happening to newspapers across the country for the past couple of decades.  Lots of people claim that this is a result of the growing popularity of online news and the burgeoning glut of information in general available on the Internet, or perhaps, they suggest, it is a result of not enough people subscribing to the paper and paying for content.

While this is partly true, it’s important to see this change in its broader context. There are two other, very important things to note that help explain what happened to the TP: changes in policies relaxing media ownership regulations and the cost of producing and distributing news.  Once we take these into consideration, we can better understand the role of consumption patterns and the internet in the changing news industry and the likely consequences of current policy decisions.

Starting with President Reagan in the 1980s and continuing with every president since, the Federal Communications Commission, which is the federal agency established to regulate communications systems across the country, has taken part in a long-term practice of loosening ownership regulation policies.

Framed as “deregulation” and based on the argument that changing ownership rules would facilitate increased competition and better reflect the demands of consumers, media conglomerates and many citizens sought to loosen up the nation’s ownership laws.  There were a number of momentous occasions for relaxing media ownership rules, including the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and a more recent ruling in 2003The results were to allow a single company to reach a larger market share of a particular region than previously allowed and to allow companies to own and control content across media platforms (print, television, radio, and internet).  This has resulted in a handful of companies owning hundreds of media and news outlets across the country.

Advance Publications, owners of The Times-Picayune, is one of these media conglomerates.  Advance Publications is headquartered in New York City (in Times Square) and according to Forbes Magazine, in 2009 it was ranked the 46th largest private company in the United States.

Advance Publications owns more than 100 media outlets across the country, including the TP.  Under these conditions, individual newspapers are simply seen as sources of debt or revenue on an accountant’s ledger.  They are sold, changed and closed with little thought to the people they serve or to their employees.

One way profit-driven media organizations seek to generate income is by increasing the number of consumers whose “eyeballs” they can then sell to marketers.  However, they don’t expect to reach everyone, and consumption patterns tend not to fluctuate very much from year to year.  Yet, these companies must continue to generate profit and to grow.  This means they have to find other ways to make money.

Mergers and acquisitions made possible through deregulation policies are some of the ways companies have dealt with this problem.

But they also seek to reduce their expenses.  News, especially investigative reporting, is expensive.  It’s never paid for itself and, in newspapers, was often subsidized through the selling of classified ads and the income generated through sports reporting.  In an attempt to continue generating profits when market share and consumption rates are stagnant, media conglomerates will lay off employees and change production and distribution practices.  In many cases, media conglomerates will close down entire newspapers.  In fact, only a few decades ago most cities in the United States. had multiple newspapers.  Not anymore.  And many of the remaining papers are only hollow shells of what they once were.

This is what we’re dealing with in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes with the ongoing changes at the TP.  As we’re experiencing in this city first-hand, the long-term result of increased control of market share by fewer and fewer owners brought forth by media deregulation, coupled with the expense of producing quality journalism, is a reduction in the number of media and news outlets servicing a particular area and a drop in the quality of reporting citizens of these areas can enjoy. (Here is some relevant research on local news media trends and policies).

Many people see the internet and drop in consumption (e.g., declining circulation rates) as the key influences affecting The Times-Picayune.  They’re not alone.  Many people in cities across the country going through similar changes with their newspapers make the same argument.  The internet has no doubt radically changed how we produce, disseminate and consume information, including news, but it’s really just the final straw — albeit a very heavy straw — that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

The decline of newspapers is rooted decades earlier in FCC changes in media ownership policies and the economic models that seek to generate maximum profit from news.  In the name of deregulation and under the guise of greater competition, changes in media ownership policies allowed one company to own more and more media outlets and control a greater share of regional markets across the U.S.  In the continued search for profit, they increase their income by acquiring more and more media outlets and reducing their expenses by producing cheaper, less costly content (e.g., a news story that reports merely what was said at a press briefing rather than one that investigates the truth of those claims), reducing production frequency, laying off journalists and closing entire papers.

More recently FCC and Congressional debates are focusing increasingly on the internet.  The decisions made here will no doubt have implications for how New Orleanians get news and what news they can access.  One of the big topics of debate today has to do with net neutrality, or the requirement that all communications companies (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, Cox, Time-Warner, etc.) treat all content and all websites equally (thus the neutrality part).  The concern is that policies currently in place protecting this type of neutrality may be altered or lost entirely.

These companies could then influence which websites people visit by affecting the speed at which they can access them.  Buy a more expensive package and you’ll get faster speed to all sorts of websites; buy the cheap package and it will take you forever to access some of the sites you rely on, particularly if they are competitors of your internet service provider’s partners or subsidiaries.  Like the deregulation policies of the 1980s, ‘90 and ‘00s, the decisions made now will affect the news environment that we enjoy or that we disparage for decades to come.

Stephen Ostertag is a professor of practice in the Department of Sociology at Tulane University and a board member of The Lens.