Economy & Business

Free the News

(Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

One way that Facebook and Google have attained their outsized influence is by cannibalizing the news media. Reader interest in news generates a lot of their revenue, but they don’t produce news content: They get it from news publishers who fund expensive newsrooms but receive little from the tech giants in return. (Print subscriptions still support many newsrooms, but are rapidly declining across the industry.) It’s an unequal relationship that helps explain why news revenues have fallen even as readership has risen. The result is a less-informed citizenry, especially when it comes to local government. These Silicon Valley companies have managed to use their clout to increase political bias in media and introduce new forms of it.

It’s no secret that conservatives have been divided over what to do about this situation. Some want to tighten regulation of tech companies or even to break up the biggest players. Others believe that the cure of government intervention would be worse than the ills we have now. While that debate continues, though, conservatives should consider a bipartisan proposal to foster a healthy market for news through a bit of deregulation.

The bill is called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Its sponsors include House antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline (D., R.I.) and his Republican counterpart Ken Buck (Colo.). In the Senate, it is sponsored by John Kennedy (R., La.) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.). It is one of the rare pieces of legislation that both Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) support.

It would allow news publishers to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over compensation for the use of news content. The publishers would have a limited exemption from antitrust laws for this purpose. The federal government, note, would not be providing news outlets with taxpayer money or requiring the tech companies to pay them specified terms. It would simply be getting out of the way while they reached a deal on a more level field. Given that the main purpose of antitrust law is to help consumers by promoting competition, it is perverse to apply it in a way that aids behemoths while reducing the quantity, quality, and diversity of news offerings.

Whatever else the federal government does about the tech companies, it should at least let other participants in the marketplace exert some countervailing force. This bill, which has just been re-introduced, should be the first item on any tech-policy agenda.

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