US Media System Essay

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The first newspaper published in the British North American colonies was Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick. One issue appeared in 1690 in Boston. It was soon closed down by the colonial government. The first continuously published newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, which began publication in 1704 and continued for several decades. The oldest daily paper still publishing is the Hartford Courant, which was founded in 1764. Newspapers and especially pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense played an active role in the movement for independence.

Partisan journalism remained the standard for most of the nineteenth century. The latter years of the century introduced two trends that are still visible in newspapers in many countries. Excessive competition between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for dominance of the New York market led to ‘yellow journalism’. In contrast was the sober, non-partisan coverage pioneered by the New York Times. Adolph Ochs took over the financially ailing Times in 1896 and declared that it would publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” a slogan that still appears on the nameplate on page one.

Legal Framework

The simple statement guaranteeing press freedom in the First Amendment to the US Constitution is one of the oldest and surely the most famous legal formulation of what is now considered a universal right. The American approach to press freedom is minimalist. It is mostly a set of restraints on government, as the First Amendment specifies. At its core is the principle that government cannot prevent publication of information but can hold journalists responsible after publication.

The Freedom House Report 2013 ranked the United States eighteenth among 63 ‘free press’ countries. The Obama administration has promised, for example, that it will improve public access to official information. A memo from US Attorney-General Eric Holder said that “an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally.” In early 2009, however, the US government opposed the publication of photos that showed prisoners tortured by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration argued that these photos could undermine military morale and encourage anti- American feeling.

Printed Press

Daily newspaper circulation reached a peak in 1985 when 1,676 daily newspapers produced 62.8 million copies. Since then, circulation – along with the number of daily newspapers – has declined steadily. This loss in circulation has led to a huge decline in advertising revenue. Overall newspaper revenue declined 52 percent from 2003 to 2012 to $22 billion. While digital advertising grew almost three times in the same period to $3.4 billion, the increase was still a long way off compensating for the huge losses on the print side (Pew Research Journalism Project 2014).

The United States has three daily newspapers that circulate nationally: the popular USA Today, which was founded in 1982 as a national newspaper (circulation, print only, in 2013 was 1.4 million), the business-oriented Wall Street Journal (circulation 1.5 million), and the general news-oriented New York Times (circulation 731,395). Most daily papers are small and oriented toward local communities. Circulation figures mask the full impact of newspaper decline because they omit reference to the rapid population growth of the United States.

The percentage of Americans who had read a newspaper ‘yesterday’ dropped from 40 percent in 2006 to 29 percent in 2012, with most of the loss in readership coming from those who read print newspapers (Pew Research Journalism Project 2013). However, this loss is somewhat balanced by the growing number of people who read newspapers online. US newspaper websites in late 2012 drew an average of 113.7 million unique visitors per month, generating more than 4.17 billion page views (Newspaper Association of America 2012).

Radio And Television

Terrestrial broadcasting in the United States is regulated by the  Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which grants broadcast licenses and maintains limited oversight under a ‘trusteeship’ model of broadcasting represented by the phrase “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” As of June 2009, the FCC had granted active licenses to 11,249 commercial radio stations and 3,106 educational or public radio stations, and to 1,395 commercial TV stations and 390 public TV stations. Additional licenses, mostly for translators and boosters and for low-power licenses operated by universities and a few communities, brought the number of terrestrial broadcasters licensed in the United States to 30,473.

Most commercial television stations are affiliated to one of the three traditional networks – CBS, ABC, or NBC – that provide news and prime-time entertainment programming, or to one of the limited networks, such as Fox or the CW network aimed at young adults.

Cable television is the standard delivery system, providing, in some cases, more than 300 programs as well as high-speed Internet access and a telephone service. In 2012, 90 percent of all TV households were cable subscribers. There are close to 8,000 cable systems, although most are owned by a handful of large corporations such as Comcast, Time-Warner, and Cox. Federal regulations require cable providers to carry all local terrestrial stations. Since the federal government’s authority to regulate content does not apply to cable or satellite broadcasting, cable content on pay services such as Home Box Office (HBO) often includes nudity, rough language, and graphic violence that are prohibited on traditional channels.

Direct broadcast satellite (DBS) is available in the United States but relatively limited. Terrestrial digital radio is slowly gaining in popularity in the United States, although only about 14 percent of all radio stations broadcast a digital-signal version of their traditional terrestrial programs. Satellite radio reaching from coast to coast is available through the sole operator, SiriusXM.

Role Of The Internet

Almost three-quarters of all US adults enjoyed a connection to the Internet in 2013 (Smith 2014). The recent growth has occurred in the accelerating adoption of high-speed Internet service. Over time, media groups have increased their reliance on the web, building more sophisticated sites to exploit its interactive features and to combine traditional forms of video, audio, print,  photography, and graphics in multimedia offerings.

News organizations moved warily onto the web as some journalists cautioned against a loss of control, and perhaps function, in a more fluid, interactive environment. The surge of independent publishing on the web, popularly labeled  citizen journalism, has awakened the established media to the revolutionary possibilities of digital networking through blogs, podcasts, video sites, and popular social networking sites. Scholars and professionals continue to explore the implications of the new digital landscape, debating issues such as whether news and advertising will continue to be presented in bundled forms via branded websites, or more commonly delivered through personalized channels and services via feeds to PCs and other, more portable devices such as mobile telephones.


  1. de Beer, A. S. & Merrill, J. C. (eds.) (2009). Global journalism: Topical issues and media systems, 5th edn. Harlow: Pearson.
  2. Gillmor, D. (2006). We the media: Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
  3. Meyer, P. (2009). The vanishing newspaper: Saving journalism in the information age, 2nd edn. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
  4. Pew Research Journalism Project (2013). State-of-the Media 2013. At
  5. Pew Research Journalism Project (2014). State of the media.
  6. Schudson, M. (1999). The good citizen: A history of American civic life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. Tunstall, J. (2007). The media were American: U.S. mass media in decline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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