Local news is in a death spiral. The country has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers since 2005, and closures continue at a rate of two a week. This mass extinction has already left about 70 million people living in “news deserts,” virtually bereft of local news.
The cost of losing these newspapers is more than missing jobs. The existence of a free press is one of America’s core beliefs, enshrined by the Founders in the First Amendment. It is no coincidence that as journalism is threatened, so is democracy.
If local journalism is to survive — to the benefit of all Americans — Congress must step in.
A bipartisan proposal to create tax incentives for local newspapers, broadcasters and digital outlets failed to retain its foothold in the budget reconciliation process. That has left the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act as the last best hope for a struggling local free press.
While newspapers and smaller broadcasters face a variety of challenges, the JCPA addresses one of the biggest problems of the digital era: the control that the dominant online platforms — primarily Facebook and Google — hold over news organizations.
“Our bipartisan legislation ensures media outlets will be able to engage in good faith negotiations to receive fair compensation from the Big Tech companies that profit from their news content, allowing journalists to continue their critical work of keeping communities informed,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in a release.
The Minnesota Democrat is spearheading the legislation in the Senate, along with Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy. In the House, U.S. Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Col., are leading the charge.
It is imperative that lawmakers recognize the vital role that a free press plays in a healthy democracy. Communities without credible sources of local news face declining voter participation, increased corruption in government and business, and even higher taxes, according to the State of Local News 2022 report produced by Northwestern University’s Medill School.
Along with allowing smaller publishers to collectively negotiate with large online platforms, the JCPA creates a limited safe harbor in antitrust laws to allow providers to jointly withhold content. The legislation also prohibits discrimination of a provider based on its size or the view expressed in its content and grants final-offer arbitration if there is no agreement after six months. The law sunsets within eight years.
The U.S. is not alone in taking on Big Tech’s digital profiteering at the expense of local newsrooms and communities. Canada is working on similar legislation and Australia has already shown it can be done. A recent report by that country’s National University found its News Media Bargaining Code resulted in $140 million paid annually by Google and Facebook to local news outlets.
Leveling the digital playing field is essential to protect local journalism. As Congress reconvenes next month, passing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act must be a top priority.