Local newspapers are disappearing, as many as 1,800 closing down the past 15 years. The reasons have been much discussed. Technology has upended the business model, advertising revenue flowing elsewhere, readers going digital, fewer inclined to pick up or subscribe to the print version of a newspaper. All that translates to diminished resources, or less money to employ reporters, editors and photographers. No newspaper has been immune.
As a result, cities and towns, larger and smaller, learn less about what is happening in their communities. That isn’t good if the concept holds that a democracy performs better when citizens are well informed.
Newspapers, including this one, understand the need to adjust and embrace new ways. Many have been doing so. At the same time, there is a strong argument for seeing others make a change, too, especially Facebook and Google, the tech giants that have been the leading beneficiaries of the decline of local newspapers. Where has all that advertising revenue gone? The vast majority now flows to Facebook and Google.
What local newspapers would like is an opportunity to recapture a portion of that revenue. They would do so by banding together. Thus, they would be in a better position to negotiate with Facebook and Google. That is the thinking behind the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, reintroduced this month by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, along with his colleague Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislation would grant local newspapers a temporary, four-year exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them a “safe harbor” to test their collective clout against the might of Facebook and Google. This is a reasonable course in view of how the two companies dominate the market, capturing roughly three-quarters of all digital advertising in the United States and corralling nearly 85 percent of new advertising.
That dominance is driven by how readers increasingly get their news — through the news feeds of Facebook and Google. With millions and millions of eyeballs landing there, the two are most attractive to advertisers, who are eager to pay for such access to consumers. Facebook and Google reap the revenue bonanza.
There is one problem. Much of that reporting, commentary and other content enjoyed by readers? It comes from local newspapers. Newspapers are pleased with the digital traffic coming their way. Yet that is small compensation given Facebook and Google benefit so handsomely from newspapers' work.
As many regularly remind, Facebook and Google are not covering mayors and governors, school boards and local sports. Their business model calls for exploiting the content of local newspapers.
What newspapers want in return is a chance to gain something closer to the true value of the content they produce. They need bargaining muscle to do so, or what they do not have now individually. Together, they would have greater leverage in discussions with Facebook and Google about such things as a more equitable split of advertising revenue and prioritizing higher quality journalism in searches and feeds.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation recently announced a five-year, $300 million commitment to rebuilding the foundation of local news. This newspaper and others look forward to seeing what the project reaps. News organizations are naturally averse to asking for congressional help. So this case isn’t made lightly. Yet local newspapers require a more powerful tool if they are going to do their part in providing the information that makes democracy work. That comes in the shape of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — an opening to fair compensation.