This spring should be a turning point for reining Big Tech and saving what’s left of the local free press system.
I’m trying to be hopeful, given recent progress in court cases and encouraging signs by regulators.
Still unclear, though, is whether Congress will follow suit. It’s now sitting on several bipartisan proposals to address unfair competition and sustain local news outlets.
If lawmakers don’t move soon, and then get distracted by midterm elections, hundreds more newspapers will fail and civic discord will worsen.
America will then cede leadership to other countries that are advancing ways to increase competition and save news outlets essential to democracy.
Antitrust enforcement promised by the executive branch does seem to be picking up steam, now that several of the aggressive regulators President Joe Biden appointed are in place at the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.
“The rise of monopoly power over digital markets threatens our democracy in a way we have not seen in generations,” the DOJ’s new antitrust chief, Jonathan Kanter, said at a conference on Thursday.
Judges are also swatting down efforts by Google and Facebook to halt or redact antitrust cases against them. One case, brought by a coalition of states, includes evidence suggesting the dominant companies illegally collaborated on digital advertising.
That alleged collusion prompted investigations in March by competition authorities in the European Union and United Kingdom.
The European Union also just announced a sweeping policy to regulate online “gatekeepers” and prevent further harm, including to news outlets.
Even Canada is stepping up with a policy, expected shortly, to help news outlets negotiate fair payment for news content used by tech giants.
New revelations about Facebook emphasize what’s at stake.
The Washington Post reported that a lobbying firm hired by the company sought to manipulate local news media, to smear a competitor and distract from its regulatory troubles.
Smearing competitors and planting negative stories is nothing new. Tech companies all hire Beltway types to fight back when they’re under pressure.
A 2020 House Judiciary Committee investigation into dominant platforms noted how they also fund academics and advocacy groups to “expand their sphere of influence, further shaping how they are governed and regulated.”
But it’s particularly cynical for a Facebook lobbyist to exploit the vulnerability of local media outlets, which are gutted after years of unfair competition with platforms like Facebook.
Many of America’s local newspapers are now ghosts, with just a few overworked reporters and editors desperate to fill pages while under pressure to chase online traffic and attract younger readers.
That makes them more vulnerable to manipulative junk coming over the transom, whether pitches for dubious surveys or stories about the dangers of Facebook rival TikTok.
It’s a vicious cycle. With fewer resources for original reporting, and more clickbait and syndicated material, papers lose trust, subscribers and revenue they need to do serious work.
Pew Research found around half of Americans now get news from social media, where sites like Facebook and TikTok are larded with even more sketchy material and do no original reporting.
Democracy suffers because voters are less informed and civically engaged when local news coverage fades away, as established by numerous academic studies. Researchers also found corruption and government waste increases when there’s less local coverage.
This was documented in the House investigation and a 2020 report by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on the journalism crisis and tech platforms’ “unfair and abusive” practices.
“Local news across America creates competition and trusted information,” Cantwell said in releasing the report. “We shouldn’t let regional and community news die as local newspapers and broadcasters adjust to digital delivery because online giants are unfairly leveraging the advertising market against them.”
Cantwell last year sponsored the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would provide tax credits to news outlets adding or retaining journalists.
It’s one of two key bills needed to support local news outlets as they transition to digital business models and await antitrust reforms that should increase their chances of survival.
The other would enable news outlets to collectively bargain fair compensation with dominant platforms. Called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, it would particularly help small outlets that individually lack heft to negotiate with the likes of Google and Facebook.
Antitrust law revisions to address self-preferencing by platforms, such as elevating their own products in search results, progressed in the Senate with bipartisan support. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act was also endorsed on March 28 by the DOJ.
The DOJ said the bill would help clarify discriminatory conduct and improve the competition enforcement system.
That’s great, but even strengthened enforcement will take years to effect. By then much of the local news system may be extinct.
To continue this spring’s momentum, and keep America’s support for the local press on par with other leading democracies, Congress should approve the two journalism bills simultaneously with longer-term antitrust reforms.