Now that Congress has generously helped America’s economic recovery, it’s time to save the local free press system.
Momentum is building to maintain this infrastructure of democracy, including an important antitrust bill introduced Wednesday and a House antitrust hearing held Friday on the news crisis.
This is great progress. But much more needs to be done to stanch the news industry’s decline and sustain local news organizations.
Adding urgency are surging job losses and newspaper closures over the last year. Over the previous 15 years, thousands of newspapers closed and half the nation’s
reporting jobs disappeared.
“We are entering a new phase — Congress is taking the problems of the media seriously in a new way,” said Craig Aaron, co-CEO of the nonprofit Free Press advocacy organization.
Jan. 6 was “a deeply traumatic event that is informing everything they do, including taking seriously the problems of disinformation and lack of trustworthy, reliable local information in a way they haven’t before,” he said. “They are seeing the results of a hollowed out media system.”
This dovetails with bipartisan efforts to address digital gatekeepers’ anti-competitive behavior, antitrust litigation and potential regulatory reforms.
To track these various efforts, The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative is producing a dashboard listing action items and their status. It’s published today with this article, will be available at Seattletimes.com and will appear periodically in print editions.
The list includes the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act announced Wednesday. It would provide publishers a 48-month antitrust exemption to collectively bargain with platforms like Google and Facebook.
This is needed because dominant platforms have unfair advantages when negotiating advertising and content agreements.
Publishers receive just 30 to 50 cents of every ad dollar passed through by platforms, Danielle Coffey, senior vice president and general counsel of the News Media Alliance trade group, told me recently.
“We’re all working with the tech platforms but not a single one of us has enough leverage,” she said. “We do what we’re told, they make up the rules … about how we can show and monetize our content with readers.”
Important members of Congress appreciate the problem.
“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy. Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption,” House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., said in the bill announcement.
“The crisis in American journalism has become a real crisis in our democracy and civic life,” House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., said at Friday’s hearing.
Cicilline said “it is clear that we must do something in the short term to save trustworthy journalism before it is lost forever. This bill is a life support measure, not the answer for ensuring the long-term health of the news industry.”
The bill has bipartisan support in both chambers. Other sponsors include U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif. A Senate version is co-sponsored by the chair of its antitrust subcommittee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
“Newspapers are locked in a life-or-death struggle with tech giants like Google and Facebook, and it’s not a fair fight,” Kennedy said in a release.
This support is tremendous.
But, as Cicilline said, the bill is just the beginning. More are needed to halt the loss of journalism jobs, sustain local news organizations and support new outlets and local investors stepping in to save newspapers.
In addition to direct supports, stronger antitrust enforcement is needed, along with regulatory reforms to prevent further consolidation of news outlets into conglomerates investing less in journalism.
Congress should be producing model legislation, that could be emulated by other democracies trying to sustain their free press systems.
A bill allowing publishers to collectively bargain with platforms was first proposed by Klobuchar in 2019.
Since then other countries moved ahead with similar policies that go further.
Australia last month mandated that platforms enter arbitration with publishers if they can’t negotiate deals on their own. The U.S. policy needs similar teeth to be effective.
Google and Facebook responded in Australia by bullying and threatening the country, with Facebook blocking all news on its site there for several days.
Seeing that behavior hardened resolve in Congress to rein in platforms and sustain the free press system, said U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat.
“I think in some ways it made our point as to the outsize control these big platforms have over government,” she said.
Jayapal, now vice chair of the House antitrust subcommittee, and Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are important voices in the effort to save local news, Aaron said.
“They’ve both been very outspoken that the crisis in news needs to be a priority,” he said.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is an important start.
With trillions of relief dollars appropriated, Congress can further strengthen the nation by saving its local free press system.
Besides, somebody has to track the $350 billion going to state and local governments, report on the spending and hold them accountable.