Structural Pluralism, Corporate Newspaper Structure, and News Source Perceptions: Another Test of the Editorial Vigor Hypothesis

Article excerpt

A recent content analysis of newspaper editorials and letters to the editor disputes the conventional wisdom that newspapers become less vigorous editorially as they acquire the characteristics of the corporate form of organization. However, many scholars remain skeptical. This study tested the editorial vigor hypothesis using an alternative methodology: a national probability survey of mainstream news sources (mayors and police chiefs). The data provide partial support for the corporate structure theory - the more structurally complex the newspaper, the more news sources perceived that paper as being critical of them and their institutions. Drawing on previous research and these findings, the author argues corporate newspapers are more critical because they are more likely to be located in pluralistic communities, which contain more social conflict and criticism of dominant groups and value systems, and because they are more insulated from local political pressures. From a broader perspective, the results may be interpreted as supporting theories which hold that the pace of social change quickens as social systems become more structurally pluralistic.

The notion that messages in mainstream news media generally support the goals of established elites and dominant value systems, often to the detriment of challenging groups, is one of the most strongly supported propositions in the literature on media effects.1 However, the question of whether such support increases or decreases with changes in the structure of social systems and news organizations themselves has yet to be resolved. Many researchers, especially neo-Marxist theorists, believe the growth of large-scale corporate media organizations is producing a less vigorous press - i.e., one that is less likely to criticize established authorities and ideas.2

Although some research suggests that newspapers are more profitable as they grow and become more structurally complex,3 several recent empirical studies have challenged criticisms that corporate newspapers are less vigorous editorially or place more emphasis on profits as an organizational goal and less on product quality.4 One implication of these findings is that corporate newspapers may have a greater, not lesser, capacity to promote social change, even if they, like all mainstream media, provide broad-based support for established authorities and dominant value systems.

Nevertheless, many scholars and professionals remain skeptical. They question whether surveys of journalists' opinions or content analyses of editorial content are themselves sufficient to test the editorial-vigor hypothesis.5 One problem is that neither method can show whether the alleged criticism is having an effect on those who make the public policy decisions. In other words, even if the content of newspapers becomes more critical of the status quo as the newspapers become more corporatized, who cares if political elites themselves do not perceive this criticism or if it has no effect on public policy?

Measuring the impact of news content on public policy decisions themselves is an extremely difficult task - one well beyond the scope of this project. However, there is another approach for testing the editorial vigor hypothesis and resolving the question above - ask news sources themselves whether they believe news and editorial page coverage is more (or less) critical of them and their policies. Although elite awareness is not a necessary condition for changes in public policy, a theory that excludes human agency may be faulted for reifying social structure or for being too reductionistic.6

More specifically, this study attempts to answer two key questions:

(1) Do mainstream news sources in communities served by newspapers that score high on measures of corporate structure perceive their newspapers as being more or less critical of them and their policies than sources in communities served by newspapers that score low? …