It’s no secret that local journalism is in deep trouble. More than two newspapers are disappearing each week, on average, and more than a fifth of Americans live in “news deserts” — communities that have lost, or are in the process of losing, their local news providers. As a result, lies and other misinformation proliferate, damaging American democracy.
Much of the money that once supported local journalism now goes to Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Meta Platforms’ Facebook. These social media companies often build user engagement by linking to the work of local journalists but typically siphon off ads and other revenues for themselves. Predictably, they want to keep it that way.
Faced with a bipartisan bill that would have helped to level the playing field, the tech giants flexed their lobbying muscles last week and succeeded in getting it shelved — at least for the moment. We’re staying hopeful despite the setback because the bill is so badly needed.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) would create an antitrust exemption enabling news organizations to come together for the purpose of negotiating payments from companies distributing their content online. The relief would be temporary, sunsetting after a period of years, so that local journalism isn’t wiped out before it can develop a sustainable business model.
Full disclosure: The Chicago Tribune and its corporate parent, MediaNews Group, stand to benefit from the legislation. If Congress were to approve it, social media companies could wind up paying millions of dollars to news organizations like ours.
We understand that readers might question our support of a bill that would help fund our work. . Still, the public interest in this legislation is beyond dispute. Doing nothing while organizations with overwhelming market power stamp out local journalism threatens the foundations of our country.
Legislation such as the JCPA is working as advertised in other countries. In Australia, a bill approved in 2021 resulted in payments of more than $140 million from the online platforms to news companies. The European Union, too, has proven the legislative approach can be effective. Canada and New Zealand are considering similar measures.
The pushback from Google and Facebook against these pro-local-news initiatives has been, above all, revealing. No reasonable person should doubt the power of those huge global companies to control the news and other information we see.
Google, for instance, contested EU efforts to force it to pay for news content shown in search results by shutting down its Google News site in Spain. The EU stood strong, proceeding with new online copyright rules. France ordered Google to negotiate, and the company earlier this year agreed to pay publishers for content.
Facebook fought the legislation in Australia by shutting down the sharing of news on its platforms. In the process, it blocked access to the pages of charities, health departments, local governments and even Facebook itself, prompting an outcry as vital content was suddenly unavailable.
Last week, Facebook used the “take our ball and go home” threat to attack the JCPA. As part of a longer statement blasting the legislation, the company threatened to “remove news from our platform altogether rather than submit to government mandated negotiations.”
It’s not too late to call the bluff. Bipartisan group of sponsors had teed up the JCPA for passage under the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual funding bill. That’s when the powerful lobby representing Big Tech swung into action. Also opposing the measure were some conservative Republicans hostile to the mainstream media, and some liberal Democrats skeptical of news chains that have laid off journalists and reduced coverage as revenues have flagged.
Though the details are still being finalized, sponsors from both parties said they had worked out some key differences. The final bill would sidestep the issue of content moderation, allaying the fears of conservatives about censorship and of liberals about hate speech. The measure would apply only to companies specializing in local news, including newspaper chains and TV station groups, not big national outlets such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times that are less threatened by Big Tech monopolies. And, as is should, it would require local news providers receiving these funds from the tech giants to invest in newsrooms, not merely boost corporate profits.
Congress is unlikely to approve the JCPA as a stand-alone bill, given the powerful opposition, and, with divided chambers as of next year, Big Tech has the upper hand in running out the clock. The last hope for this session could be including it in an omnibus spending bill that must pass by later this month to keep the government running, though the reckoning could be postponed if Congress agrees to a continuing resolution.
As with any business facing an uncertain future, local journalism will need to innovate to survive, and that process is underway.
Congress, give news organizations the breathing room required to continue providing the factual local content that Google and Facebook users want — and need — to see.
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