Chances are now slim that Congress will provide tax credits to help save local journalism, since they aren’t in the Senate’s latest budget package.
Fortunately the other big hope for press advocates, an antitrust bill to level the playing field with tech giants, remains on track, according to its lead House sponsor.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline said there’s strong bipartisan support to pass the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, despite furious opposition from Google and Facebook.
The Rhode Island Democrat and House antitrust subcommittee chair hoped to advance JCPA this month. But it was delayed by bills on assault weapons, marriage equality and contraception.
The JCPA would provide a temporary antitrust exemption allowing news outlets to collectively negotiate fair compensation for their content. This approach is working in Australia, where all but a few outlets are now getting compensated.
Cicilline said JCPA won’t solve the journalism crisis by itself, but it’s a critical step.
“We really have to figure out how we ensure the sustainability of journalism in the long run in this country, local journalism in particular,” he said. “But before we figure that out, which is a longer-term project, we have to do something to stop the bleeding. The JCPA provides a stopgap measure, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to preserve local journalism.”
Cicilline was previously a state legislator and Providence mayor, experiences that don’t often produce press champions.
But he grew up seeing the local newspaper serve its community and hold officials accountable, including a corrupt mayor.
That mayor would probably have remained in office until he died “if it were not for The Providence Journal uncovering and revealing the corruption,” he said.
“There are examples all across the country where local journalism was the reason people were held accountable for their conduct and exposed corruption at the local and state level,” he said.
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q: How is the JCPA progressing?
A: We’re in a good place. We made revisions that make it a better bill, language to specifically exclude some of the largest publishers and broadcasters, which really don’t have the same problems. We’ve broadened it to local broadcasters who face many of the same challenges. My hope was to mark it up before the August recess, but it looks like we’ll have to do it when we get back.
Q: It’s stronger?
A: We learned a lot from the Australian experience and made improvements to ensure the process for enforcing it is workable and also that the money goes to the newsroom and not shareholders.
Q: Does it include baseball style arbitration? That seems necessary to get platforms to actually make deals.
A: Yes, final offer arbitration is, I think critical, for this, especially for publishers.
Q: Have you seen the decline of local journalism and its effects?
A: Oh, a dramatic decline. You see now that coverage of local events is dwindling, these local newspapers are going out of business, they’re consolidating, there are news deserts being created. Then the void is filled with stuff that is much less reliable online, and people don’t have access to trustworthy, reliable news. It impacts the health of our democracy in fundamental ways. If you look at the number of newspapers we lose every year, it’s staggering. This is urgent.
Q: The market is tough.
A: As you know, Google and Facebook control three quarters of all online ad revenues, at least three out of four Americans get their news from platforms controlled by Facebook and Google, so this is an enormous amount of power over what people see. They wield that power in a way that is really unfair to local broadcasters and journalists who produce the content.
Q: What are impediments to getting JCPA done?
A: The impediment is the power of the large technology platforms. They desperately want to maintain the current ecosystem that allows them to essentially steal the content and abuse and bully the producers of that content, because they can.
They want to block all of the antitrust reforms because they very much want to maintain the ecosystem that has generated them profits never seen in the history of the world. And with tremendous economic power comes political power — that’s one of the real dangers of monopolies. These are the oil barons and railroad tycoons of our time. They’re trying to preserve the unfair practices that they engage in and that generate them huge profits, and they don’t want a competitive or fair system, or a system that requires them to negotiate in good faith with the producers of that content. That’s what we’re going to fix.
Q: Will JCPA support hold through midterms?
A: I hope so. That’s why I’m anxious to get it done this Congress because we’ve had such strong bipartisan support. People working on this understand the danger of the monopoly power of these platforms, and I don’t think that will change even in the context of a campaign.
Q: Congress and the White House are working to make the U.S. and democracy more resilient. I see that in the (computer) chip bill and democracy summits. Saving journalism fits with that, although I don’t hear that conversation much.
A: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. We can’t be strong internationally and be an example to the world in terms of democracy and human rights and a free press and an independent judiciary without having a robust and diverse local news media. I think there’s a deep understanding that this is critical to our democracy, and I’m confident that when we finally get it to the floor it will have overwhelming and very strong bipartisan support.
Q: How can people help?
A: They should write their senators and representatives telling them to support the bill.