It can truly be an odd sight to behold — an entire panel of members of Congress, spanning ideological backgrounds and from both parties — sitting in front of six experts brainstorming about how to save both traditional news media and their online cousins from falling apart and leaving the countryside devoid of fact-based reporting.
Yet that occurred Tuesday afternoon in the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law.
“As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927, those who want our independence believe that public discussion is a political duty,” said U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. and chairman of the subcommittee. “That the greatest threat to freedom is an uninformed citizenry, and that the freedom of thought and speech are indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.
“But over the past decade, the news industry has been in a state of economic free-fall. From 2006 to 2017, advertising revenue has fallen $49 billion to $15.6 billion, resulting in mass layoffs, or newspapers folding altogether. This year alone, roughly 2,900 reporters and other news staff have already lost their jobs. These massive cuts are happening to traditional news companies and online news sources alike.”
He added that during this same period, online platforms that serve as gateways to news “operating with virtual immunity from the antitrust laws.” Cicilline said Google bought several of its online advertising competitors during this time, concentrating market power and producing a lack of transparency. He also notes Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp.
In his statement to the subcommittee, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley said these discussions tend to involve the largest media brands, but not the ones most affected.
“The greatest peril for our nation lurks at the local level, where a regional or a community newspaper must cope with fast-changing technological and financial matters,” Riley said. “We’re the ones who are concerned with our communities, their government and their well-being. Our staffs live in our community. They have a big stake on informing the public.
“Social media and technology companies have enormous influence on the distribution and availability of news. But, we should be worries about losing newspapers — the fountainheads within the local news ecosystem. It is worth considering stories that would go untold.”
Responding to a question from U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-4, Riley said the AJC’s audience presently is the largest it’s ever had, when combining both print and online.
“The challenge here is sort of simple, which is, in what kind of world do you grow your audience, reach a bigger market and somehow face even greater financial challenges than you did before?” Riley said. “Something’s out of whack in that equation and it’s just counterintuitive to how American business works.”
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., asked Riley what happens when newspapers begin to collapse. Riley talked about the physical lack of reporters from other news organizations at the state legislature in Atlanta. While The News recently won a Georgia Press Association award for its coverage of the 2018 legislative session, that work’s done remotely, thanks to streaming video of committee and full chamber sessions provided by the General Assembly. And though that’s a adaptation resulting in some success, there’s a lot to be said for being in person, being around the people making and shaping public policy outside of those meetings.
Atlanta’s a long and costly journey for many publications — too costly to send one or more of their reporters every year for three months or more.
“What’s happened is it’s gotten too expensive to send reporters from Macon or Valdosta or Columbus, Ga., and that’s not good,” Riley said. “That’s not good for our democracy, that’s not good for Georgia, that’s not good for any of those communities, because of what’s happening in the industry.
“I’ll be honest with you — it’s not good for us, because the competition, we like to see them around, it would make us better and we’d all be better, the state would be better and all those local communities would be better.”
U.S. Rep Doug Collins, R-9, cosponsors legislation with Cicilline that would allow newspaper publishers to, essentially, collectively bargain with major online platforms. He said it’s important for members of Congress to not move quickly toward improperly thought-out new regulatory framework.
“That is especially true when regulation seeks to take on evolving problems in fast-moving markets like tech,” Collins said. “I speak from experience here — I have worked through these before, and we have to make sure we’re not looking for an immediate solution to this soreness in our foot, and recognize we’ve got a problem with our leg. We need to make sure we’re working this through.”
He said if publishers were able to negotiate fair attribution and advertising revenue with online platforms, that could provide a turning point.
“The problem, however, is that smaller news organizations don’t stand a fair negotiating chance when they try to negotiate deals with the platform giants,” Collins said. “These giants stand as a bottleneck, a classic antitrust problem, between the consumers and the producers of news content.”
David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, said in his prepared testimony that tech giants’ control over news distribution and monetization threatens the existence of news organizations. The News Media Alliance represents more than 2,000 papers, and has a board populated by a mixed group of industry executives — some lionized, others pilloried.
Chavern said in regard to a question from Collins that he believes this is an opportunity for a partnership between publishers and major online platforms.
“Again, at the end of the day, the platforms — I view them as a solution, a potential solution for news and journalism, rather than a problem,” Chavern said. “And I feel the issues are pretty well understood and pretty well defined. We have issues about revenue, we have issues about data, we have issues about algorithms and our brand, but these are all things I think are solvable, achievable, and I’m confident we could develop a solution that would greatly support journalism for some significant period of time.”