Local news publishers have long kept government officials accountable and citizens informed and connected. But over the past decade, an alarming number of them have closed, and many of those that remain — including new entrants — are struggling. The next Congress has it in its power to give them a fighting chance.
Declining interest from readers is not the problem — overall readership has been increasing. The Minneapolis-based Star Tribune and the Dallas Morning News, by way of example, have 4.6 and 6.3 million unique visitors each month, respectively. However, while online readers like high-quality news content provided by news publishers, the digital-media ecosystem is dominated by tech intermediaries who grab most of the value. As a result, revenue has declined. Revenue produced by American news publications has dropped by 58 percent since 2005. An analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that the number of newspaper newsroom employees fell from around 71,000 workers to 35,000 between 2008 and 2019 — a decrease of 51 percent. Today, nearly half of the counties in the country have only one newspaper, while almost 200 counties have no local newspaper at all.
Research has shown that a majority of Americans access news through two platforms: Google and Facebook. Those two companies also benefit greatly from users’ interest in news, which has only intensified this year with the spread of the coronavirus.
The government cannot regulate the press under the First Amendment, but in every meaningful respect, these two companies do. They disseminate news publishers’ original content, but they also dictate how it is displayed, prioritized, and monetized. Their algorithms determine what news content is delivered to which readers, and their control of the digital-advertising ecosystem severely constrains potential publisher revenue.
An antitrust lawsuit filed recently by ten state attorneys general highlights the absolutely dominant role played by Google in the digital-ad market that has been responsible for eating into news publishers’ advertising revenue — revenue that news publishers need to be able to reinvest in providing high-quality journalism.
If news publishers had the ability to band together to collectively negotiate with the platforms for compensation for their content, they could get a better deal that might sustain local journalism. But ironically, the federal antitrust law actually prohibits news publishers from working together to seek a level playing field.
When it protects consumers, safeguards competition, and stops predatory behavior, antitrust law serves a valuable purpose. But something is wrong when it is used to justify actions by dominant market actors to squeeze value from counterparties. National Review noted the perversity of this policy, stating: “Whatever else antitrust law is good for, it shouldn’t be used to shield Goliath from David.” News publishers must have the right to stand up for themselves and obtain appropriate value for their critical content. This is most important for small, local publishers and new entrants, who have no hope for negotiating a fair deal with the tech giants without an antitrust safe harbor.
While public concern about the big tech companies has been rising, many conservatives and business groups remain wary of government action to rein them in and do not want to change antitrust laws. But even conservatives who hold these views should favor a temporary antitrust exemption that allows publishers to negotiate for a more equitable arrangement with the big tech companies.
Among many other benefits, a more equitable arrangement between publishers and tech companies would result in greater choice for the consumer. Recreating a healthy market for news will allow more publishers to thrive in a digital age and will make a greater variety of high-quality news sources — from all points of view — available to readers.
Congressional action granting a short-term safe harbor from antitrust laws is the lightest-touch solution to the dangers that quality journalism is facing — the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which was introduced with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate last year, would do just that. Unlike other proposals to provide direct government aid to newspapers, a safe harbor would not require taxpayer money or threaten press freedom. It would merely give the publishers the right to be left alone to fight for the future of quality journalism.
Our country’s Founders understood that an independent and vibrant press is vital to preserving democracy. The only way it can continue to be so is if obstacles to news publishers getting paid for their journalism are removed. Let’s hope the next Congress recognizes that, too.