Local news publishers in America are struggling — and it’s not for a lack of news to report, not for lack of an audience or the public’s trust. Publishers simply aren’t being paid for the journalism they produce, because Big Tech misuses its market power to siphon off billions of dollars in online advertising. Bipartisan legislation in Congress would help level the playing field so these newsrooms can continue serving their communities.
Healthy newsrooms are vital to an informed citizenry and democracy alike. But the increasingly digitized news market has preordained winners and losers. Nearly half of all U.S. counties have only one newspaper. More than 200 counties have no local news coverage at all. That can mean no consistent eye on the mayor or the city budget, no coverage of county sheriffs or elections, and no local lens on state and national issues that impact the folks at home.
The irony is that communities are losing a voice just as the demand for news and information is as ravenous as ever. The audience for news is growing fast, with media organizations reaching approximately 136 million U.S. adults each week. Yet at the same time, revenue generated by U.S. news publications has dropped 58% since 2005. Between 2004 and 2018, newspaper newsroom employment dropped by almost half, according to the Pew Research Center. How can news organixations be losing money when traffic to news sites is increasing? Simple: The people producing this news aren’t being paid for it.
These publications provide must-have content that major online platforms like Google and Facebook need to capture viewers. According to the News/Media Alliance, a publishers’ trade group, up to 40% of Google searches are for news content. Yet these major platforms take as much as 70% of every dollar made in digital advertising, leaving only 30% for publishers. These companies use their huge quasi-monopoly powers to determine how locally-produced journalism is displayed and monetized. Big Tech profits from these reporters, editors and photographers but doesn’t fairly reimburse these newsrooms for making it all possible.
Legislation in the House and Senate, called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, seeks to bring some fair play to the market. It would create a temporary window for publishers to collectively negotiate with online platforms over the terms for using locally-produced journalism. The goal is a fairer distribution of payments that reflect the investments that news organization make. In the end, readers will be much better served.
This is a sensible, fair and measured approach that has drawn bipartisan congressional support. Its 64 cosponsors in the House include Democrat Kathy Castor of Tampa and Republicans Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Vern Buchanan and Greg Steube of Sarasota. And it’s hardly revolutionary. In April, Canada announced proposed legislation that would compel platforms like Facebook and Google to negotiate with news publishers, joining other countries, including Australia, France and Spain, that believe Big Tech needs to pay for this content.
While partisanship may have sapped Americans’ views of Washington, D.C., and the national media, surveys show Americans still overwhelmingly trust their local news sources. Local newspapers aren’t seeking special treatment, just a fair chance to protect their data and brands, be compensated for their work and sustain what we in the industry believe to be a vanguard for democracy.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.