If Congress is going to extend a lifeline to the independent local free press, it needs to act quickly. There are some good ideas kicking around, like the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. And there are some bad ones, like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.
The JCPA (H.R.2054 in the House and S.1700 in the Senate) looks like a clever free-market approach to helping news organizations. But really, it’s designed to help the big players and media consolidators that disinvest in newsrooms — not the local, community-oriented, watchdog journalism that is fundamental to democratic norms.
The act would exempt print and digital news from antitrust law for four years. Newspapers and online news organizations could band together to negotiate better deals with Google and Facebook. Federal antitrust law normally prohibits that sort of collusion among businesses.
Finding some way to force Google and Facebook to the table is essential to the survival of the free press. Those two companies gobble up most online advertising revenue while co-opting the reporting that newspapers and other publishers create. The people who produce the news share little in the profits. Here are the terms, a newspaper can agree or not have its stories show up in search.
If print and digital news organizations could present a unified front, the thinking goes, they could force the internet giants to share the wealth. They might even persuade them to support higher journalistic standards and less click-bait.
And if Google and Facebook resist, the news media coalition could withhold their content. There’d be a digital-news strike. People wouldn’t be able to find news online without going straight to the source until there was a deal.
In other words, the print and digital news media could form a cartel and use strong-arm negotiating tactics that are usually illegal.
Federal antitrust laws forbid that sort of collusion because it’s almost always bad for consumers. Nevertheless, many news industry groups have endorsed the JCPA in their desperation for any plausible path to viability.
If the JCPA passes, news giants would dominate the cartel. Locally owned newspapers like The Seattle Times would have little voice in a coalition of print and digital news organizations that included national newspapers like The New York Times, major chains and hedge funds that own dozens of newspapers, and websites with millions of users.
Supporters of the JCPA dismiss that concern with hand waving. They throw around phrases like “protects the free and diverse press,” “access to trustworthy news” and “fairly negotiate with large-tech platforms.” What those grand ideas mean in practice would be filled in later and probably not to the benefit of the public or local news. The act gives power to the cartel but demands no accountability in return.
Hedge funds, distressed assets managers and news chains care more about their profits than about the quality of the news and its importance to a community. The sort of deal they would accept from Google and Facebook would look very different from a deal that would help local newspapers.
America gets only one shot at this. If a deal is struck, Google and Facebook would be able to say that they had done their part. Independent local news would continue to wither while the hedge funds wait in the wings ready to buy them up and slash their reporting staffs.
The good news is that passage of the JCPA is a longshot. Lawmakers introduced it more than a year ago, and it hasn’t gained much traction. The House version sits in committee without having received a hearing. The Senate version doesn’t even have a committee home. With a presidential election flaming partisan divides and other emergencies to deal with, it’s a tough road to passage before the end of the year.
Maybe the next Congress can come up with something better before it’s too late for local news.