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.”
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