We often deliver frank advice to members of Congress. Today we deliver a frank alert: If companies that provide high-quality reporting and commentary can’t freely bargain with the likes of Google and Facebook for a fair marketplace, then the news industry’s downward financial spiral will only intensify. News staffs will continue to shrink, Americans will get less high-caliber journalism – and the low-rent providers of skimpy, one-sided or manipulative information will happily fill that void.
To be upfront: This editorial promotes the Chicago Tribune’s interest, but also the interest of Tribune readers everywhere. We’re echoing an effort by the News Media Alliance, a group of 2,000 local and national news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. These companies are asking Congress not for taxpayer money or regulation of the internet Goliaths of social media and search. Rather, they seek a temporary dispensation so they can, as a group, try to negotiate fair terms with companies that now freely capture and redistribute original journalism the instant it’s published it online.
As is, Google and Facebook extend the reach of news and commentary, but in essence they’re freeloaders. They pay nothing for all the content they take; the best that a publisher such as the Tribune can hope for is a relatively small portion of the revenue from certain ads attached to our content. The internet companies also collect information about Tribune readers, the better for them to sell and target advertising.
This playing field isn’t even close to level. Google and Facebook not only take and redistribute [newspapers’] journalism, they compete with them for the advertising dollars that help pay for it. These two internet companies now control the vast majority of all digital ad revenue. What’s more, the companies’ technical prowess and human decision-making give them unprecedented power: They can control whether consumers even see news and commentary generated by publications such as ours. Cue here the furor over internet algorithms determining what political content Americans saw before the 2016 election – and about Google’s and Facebook’s ability to virtually censor information their employees may dislike.
How to react? News publishers want to bargain as a group with companies such as Facebook and Google. But under federal antitrust law, news companies can’t even talk among themselves about withholding or withdrawing from the internet platforms the journalism they produce. Their proposed solution, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, is now before Congress. It would create a 48-month “safe harbor” in which news organizations could negotiate as a group with the online platforms for a fair share of the revenue the publishers’ content generates.
This waiver is narrowly drawn. It wouldn’t advantage large companies like [the Tribune’s] corporate parent, Tribune Publishing, over small ones, or favor legacy news outlets over digital upstarts. By allowing publishers to negotiate how Facebook and Google use locally created journalism, it would allow the news producers to seek compensation for their work. We can’t improve on this what’s-at-stake sentence from Susan Rowell, president of the National Newspaper Association: “We want our investment in our communities to come back to us in the form of just compensation so we can continue to cover the news.”
The bill before Congress comes at a make-or-break moment for U.S. news companies – but also for their readers and viewers. If the unchallenged grip of companies such as Facebook and Google persists, quality journalism probably cannot. “An entity with the power to dictate the terms of distribution of news has the power to dictate the content of news,” the act states, adding later, “A central purpose of the antitrust laws is to promote and protect open markets, including those for the free and diverse press.”
The Chicago Tribune is in its 172nd year of promoting free markets, asking government to do little but keep those markets fair. Once again, we rise to speak – for ourselves this time, but also for our millions of readers.
That said, no industry relishes seeking a temporary a safe harbor from Congress. This industry, pillaged by the likes of Facebook and Google, sees no choice.