The United States media landscape has been characterised by the centrality of large-scale cultural industries since the development of the penny press in the 1830s. For a while in the nineteenth century big urban newspapers were the largest manufacturing companies in the country. This trend continued with the rise of Hollywood, commercial broadcasting and associated industries like music recording and advertising.
For a number of decades in the mid-twentieth century a fairly stable equilibrium existed in the media system, with strong stable markets that made the dominant media companies highly profitable and very influential as social institutions. Newspapers, broadcast companies and magazines all invested heavily in newsrooms and the profession of journalism grew in number, autonomy and influence. Journalism was characterised by a low level of "political parallelism," with the "objectivity norm" dominating journalistic ethics and most news organisations avoiding identification with particular political parties or tendencies.
In recent years many important elements of the stable system of the late twentieth century have been disrupted by economic, technological and political change. Stable boundaries that once separated markets have been disrupted by digital convergence and deregulation; and the landscape is increasingly dominated by cross-media conglomerates, including Google and Facebook. The latter two have always presented themselves as “tech” companies, not media enterprises. But their business model is based on selling audiences to advertisers, a market they now dominate, and they are central to the flow of information and public discourse. The role of the tech giants is increasingly the subject of debate, particularly since the scandals over fake news, Russian intervention, and related issues following the 2016 election. Besides these, the top companies include Disney (which owns broadcast network ABC); Comcast, a cable television giant which also owns the NBC and (Spanish-language) Telemundo networks; 21st Century Fox; Viacom; CBS; and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. AT&T, the telecommunications carrier which is the principal competitor to Comcast in delivering content to homes is bidding to buy Time-Warner, which would make it, like Comcast, a key player in both content and carriage.
The newspapers, broadcast networks and magazines that were the main institutional home for journalism have faced economic crisis and have downsized their newsrooms, often drastically. A host of new entrants to the market have emerged, mainly on-line, and the Internet has accelerated a trend that had already begun in increasingly fragmented broadcast industries toward the proliferation of hybrid forms of information and comment that blur the boundaries among journalism, politics, entertainment, public relations and activism.
In 2016, 57 percent of Americans said they often get news from TV, 38 percent online, 25 percent from radio and 20 percent from print newspapers. In terms of advertising revenue, in 2017 Internet-based media had the largest share. According to one estimate, Internet-based media accounted for 38.4 percent, Television 31.5 percent, Radio 8.1 percent, Newspapers 7.5 percent Consumer Magazines 7.4 percent and Other, 7.2 percent.
Political parallelism has increased, with many media in the fragmented markets of radio, cable news and digital media adopting strong partisan identities. The highest-circulation media still avoid such identities, but public attitudes toward the media are often sharply differentiated by political orientation, particularly since the 2016 election campaign, and patterns of media use increasingly so.
Journalistic professionalism is traditionally strong in the United States, and remains so at many of the core “legacy media” (whose audiences have generally expanded since Trump presidency began) as well as in many “net native” news media. However, journalists increasingly face pressures including more precarious jobs, greater pressure to generate audience engagement and revenue, political polarisation and decreased public trust. Surveys have shown that, while 60 percent of journalists in the 1970s-1980s said they had “almost complete freedom” in selecting stories, by 2013 only 34 percent reported such freedom. The boundaries of the profession are also increasingly blurred by the proliferation of communicators with a wide range of values and goals, including partisan commentators, citizen journalists, various new infotainment platforms, etc. Also, professional journalists no longer have the centrality as “gatekeepers” of the flow of information they once had.
The state has generally played a limited role in the US media systems, compared with other parts of the world, a result of the combined influence of the First Amendment legal tradition and the centrality of free market liberalism. Press subsidies and forms of intervention have existed in certain periods, particularly early in the history of the press. But public service broadcasting has always been marginal, and many forms of regulation and support that are found in other developed capitalist democracies are absent.
Public broadcasting in the US consists of two national networks, the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) television network and the NPR (National Public Radio) network, together with local stations which are their members, a bit fewer than 1,000 in the case of NPR. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a non-profit corporation funded by the Federal government which channels the Federal investment in public broadcasting through grants. The majority of revenue for public broadcasting comes from donations from members (about 2.1 million people nationwide in 2015) and other private gifts, sponsorship by businesses and nonprofits (with sponsors getting on-air publicity in recognition) and foundation grants. Support from Federal, State and local government provides a limited part of their funding.