We take notice when the U.S. Senate Majority Leader does anything in a bipartisan manner these days. But when that action supports local journalism, we see hope for just about anything.
That’s what happened a few days ago when Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added his sponsorship to the Senate version of the Journalism Competition and Protection Act (S. 1700).
The bill would provide a four-year safe harbor from anti-trust laws for publishers to negotiate a fair use of content and division of revenue that huge online companies, such as Facebook and Google, derive by making money off of stories produced by news organizations such as The Sentinel without sharing in their cost.
Anti-trust laws prevent publishers from essentially working as one in such matters. The four-year window would lift that restriction allowing publishers, perhaps through a trade association, to negotiate with search engine and social media platforms to give up some of the advertising dollars they sweep in by selling ads around original content produced by journalists and the news organizations that employ them.
This would come at a critical time for newspapers, which have seen their business model falter as advertising has moved to tech giants who pay little, or nothing, for the news content that fuels their business.
U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., summed it up nicely as the original sponsor of the bill.
“They’ve (Facebook and Google) pitted themselves against newspapers in a David-and-Goliath battle in which newspapers don’t have a stone to throw much less a slingshot to put it in,” he said in a statement in the Washington Post. “The readers are the true losers as newsrooms empty out across the country.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, publishers eschewed charging readers for online content, giving in to the lure of huge amounts of web visitors that news generates. The theory, at the time, was that news websites, among the busiest of all on the Internet, could charge advertisers for that traffic. Search engines, including Google and Yahoo, rushed in to aggregate this suddenly free content and monetized search in a way most publishers never saw coming. Facebook exacerbated the problem by distributing the same free content to their massive network, enabling targeting that we now know can be exploited in nefarious ways.
The impact on the publishing industry has been dramatic. Today, there are some 1,800 fewer newspapers than in 2004, according to a University of North Carolina study on the emergence of news deserts — those communities or counties without local newspapers.
As we have learned to our dismay following the 2016 election, Google and Facebook do not behave as responsible publishers do; they take zero responsibility for fake information they willingly distribute. They make little distinction between a properly vetted story from a trusted news source shared on Facebook versus a Russian troll-generated piece of fiction. Content is content, seems to be their thinking, no matter its source or reliability.
News publishers continue to take on all the liability — and responsibility — for the content they produce whether in print or online. When was the last time you saw Facebook print a correction?
This is not to say that the federal legislation under consideration is without critics. Plenty of publishers likely don’t want the government’s help righting the ship in this fashion. Writing on the media for Politico, Jack Shafer likens this effort to publishers forming a “cabal” and says the industry is looking for Congress to fix its mistakes.
Newspapers today are doing what they should have done from the beginning — charging readers for content whether in print or online. Journalism — good local journalism — is not inexpensive to produce, so the cost of staying informed is likely to increase. But the price of being uninformed is too high to calculate for our democracy, and tech titans such as Google and Facebook need to understand that if trustworthy news goes away, so, eventually, will they.