Jour­nal­ism groups ask Congress to save them from Big Tech

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VALERIE RICHARD­SON

Jour­nal­ists have tra­di­tion­ally kept an arm’s length re­la­tion­ship with law­mak­ers, but as news out­lets con­tinue to shed jobs and fold, press ad­vo­cates want mem­bers of Congress to step in and save the in­dus­try from Google and Face­book.

Law­mak­ers such as Rep. David N. Ci­cilline, the Rhode Is­land Demo­crat lead­ing the mo­nop­oly in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Big Tech, are more than will­ing to help with leg­is­la­tion aimed at loos­en­ing the grip of dig­i­tal giants on news­pa­per ad rev­enue.

Such a part­ner­ship be­tween law­mak­ers and jour­nal­ism ad­vo­cacy groups has raised ques­tions about whether the press can act as a dis­in­ter­ested chron­i­cler of the un­fold­ing an­titrust drama when jour­nal­ists them­selves have a stake in the game.

David Chav­ern, pres­i­dent of the News Me­dia Al­liance, tes­ti­fied that the down­ward spi­ral fu­eled by the rise of dig­i­tal

plat­forms has left the news in­dus­try with lit­tle choice but to turn to Congress.

“Present trends can’t con­tinue,” Mr. Chav­ern, whose trade as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sents more than 2,000 news­pa­pers, said at a Tues­day hear­ing of the House Ju­di­ciary an­titrust sub­com­mit­tee ti­tled “On­line Plat­forms and Mar­ket Power, Part 1: The Free and Di­verse Press.”

“If we con­tinue on this path, we’re go­ing to lose vast amounts of qual­ity jour­nal­ism, par­tic­u­larly in com­mu­ni­ties all around the coun­try,” he said. “That’s not just a bad busi­ness out­come; that is ut­terly de­struc­tive to our civic so­ci­ety and can’t be al­lowed to hap­pen.”

The toll on the in­dus­try is well recorded. Since 2004, about 1,800 news­pa­pers, about 20% of them, have folded or merged while 32,000 em­ploy­ees have lost their jobs in the past 10 years. Mean­while, Google and Face­book now ab­sorb about 60% of ad rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to the Save Jour­nal­ism Project.

In 2004, Google’s U.S. ad rev­enue from dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing was $2.1 bil­lion while the news­pa­per in­dus­try took in $48 bil­lion. Those fig­ures had nearly re­versed by 2017, when Google’s share rose to $52.4 bil­lion and the news busi­ness’ fell to $16.4 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the al­liance.

To re­serve the trend, Mr. Ci­cilline in­tro­duced the Jour­nal­ism Com­pe­ti­tion and Preser­va­tion Act of 2019, which would cre­ate a four-year ex­emp­tion for news out­lets to ne­go­ti­ate as a unit with the dom­i­nant plat­forms such as Google and Face­book, giv­ing them “an even play­ing field,” at least in the short term.

“While I do not view this leg­is­la­tion as a substitute for more mean­ing­ful com­pe­ti­tion on­line or an­titrust scru­tiny, it is clear that we must do some­thing in the short term to save trust­wor­thy jour­nal­ism be­fore it is lost for­ever,” Mr. Ci­cilline said. “This bill is a life sup­port mea­sure, not the rem­edy for long-term health.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Ge­or­gia, the rank­ing Repub­li­can on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, said the bill would al­low news­pa­pers to “take on the bot­tle­neck to­gether.”

“The bill al­lows news pub­li­ca­tions to take on an an­titrust prob­lem with­out wor­ry­ing that the an­titrust laws them­selves will stand in the way,” Mr. Collins said. “It does not pro­pose any reg­u­la­tory struc­tures. It does not threaten to break up any com­pany. It does prom­ise to sim­ply and ef­fec­tively solve the prob­lem.”

A bill in­tro­duced by Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, would make it eas­ier for news out­lets to qual­ify for tax-ex­empt sta­tus and ex­empt ad rev­enue from tax­a­tion.

Among those struck by the specter of jour­nal­ists team­ing up with Congress to save their pay­checks was Dan Gainor, vice pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter, who said the an­swer should be in­no­va­tion, not gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion.

“I’m not say­ing there aren’t is­sues with Google. There are,” Mr. Gainor said. “But the idea that the news­pa­per in­dus­try needs a spe­cial carve-out to deal with Google — the irony is pretty strong.”

He raised con­cerns about the in­tegrity of the jour­nal­ism busi­ness, which polls show has strug­gled with a lack of pub­lic con­fi­dence.

“How are we to trust that the news me­dia, which we al­ready know are re­ally bi­ased, how neu­tral are they go­ing to be when Congress starts vot­ing on things that the news me­dia wants?” Mr. Gainor asked.

Jeff Jarvis, a jour­nal­ism entreprene­ur at the Craig New­mark Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism at the City Univer­sity of New York, is no con­ser­va­tive, but he ar­gued that Google has been a boon for the in­dus­try by send­ing bil­lions of clicks per month to news web­sites.

He ac­cused trade as­so­ci­a­tions of “cor­ruptly cash­ing in their po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal — which they have be­cause their mem­bers are news­pa­pers, and politi­cians are scared of them — in des­per­ate acts of pro­tec­tion­ism to at­tack plat­form com­pa­nies.”

“The re­sult is a raft of leg­is­la­tion that will dam­age the in­ter­net and in the end hurt ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists and es­pe­cially cit­i­zens,” Mr. Jarvis said in an op-ed on Medium.

It could also be worse, Mr. Gainor said.

“Can you imag­ine the re­ac­tion if to­mor­row Google said, ‘Screw the me­dia, we’re go­ing to stop send­ing traf­fic their way’?” he asked. “Or, ‘We’re go­ing to hire 1,000 jour­nal­ists and send all searches for news to our own con­tent’?”

“There would be a hue and cry like you’ve never heard in the land,” he said.

At the hear­ing, Matt Schruers, vice pres­i­dent for law and pol­icy at the pro-tech Com­puter & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion, cited the ben­e­fits of the tech rev­o­lu­tion. Among the top 50 news­pa­pers, av­er­age monthly unique vis­i­tors grew from 2014 to 2017 by 40%, he said.

It was un­clear at the hear­ing the rev­enue split be­tween news out­lets and dig­i­tal plat­forms, but Mr. Schruers said most of it went to the pub­lish­ers.

“In some cases, it’s 85 or even 100% of the rev­enue [that] is re­tained by the news pub­lisher,” he said. “So it varies greatly by the plat­form. I know of no rev­enue split where the news pub­lisher re­ceives only 30%.”

Such ar­gu­ments come as lit­tle com­fort to the 2,900 news em­ploy­ees who have lost their jobs this year. They in­clude for­mer Huf­fPost re­porter Laura Bas­sett and ex-BuzzFeed Washington bureau chief John Stan­ton, who have since joined Save Jour­nal­ism.

“Jour­nal­ists are taught not to be the story,” Ms. Bas­sett said in a state­ment, “but as Big Tech’s dig­i­tal ad mo­nop­oly ben­e­fits off of our rev­enue streams, it’s in­cum­bent upon us to fight for the fu­ture of our in­dus­try.”

“I’m not say­ing there aren’t is­sues with Google. There are. But the idea that the news­pa­per in­dus­try needs a spe­cial carve-out to deal with Google — the irony is pretty strong.”

— Dan Gainor, Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter

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