When a sport utility vehicle swerved out of its lane several weeks ago, slamming into a pickup truck and killing a teenager, a reporter from The Northeast Georgian raced to the scene. Within hours, the paper had posted the news on Facebook and updated it twice. It was shared by hundreds of people on the social network.
The fatal wreck consumed the town of Cornelia, Ga., nestled near the Chattahoochee National Forest about 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. The Northeast Georgian was the first to report the news, but unless the people who shared its story on Facebook follow a link to its website, either to see an ad or to subscribe to its twice-weekly print edition, the paper won’t get paid.
As with many small papers across the country, that business strategy is not working for The Northeast Georgian. The paper’s five employees do not just report and write. They also edit the articles, take photographs and lay out the newspaper.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘Honey, if you let them get milk through the fence, they’ll never buy the cow,’” said Dink NeSmith, chief executive of Community Newspapers Inc., which owns The Northeast Georgian and 23 other local papers.
But the tough economics facing small newspapers like Mr. NeSmith’s has generated rare bipartisan agreement in Washington.
Anger toward big technology companies has led to multiple antitrust investigations, calls for a new federal data privacy law and criticism of the companies’ political ad policies. Perhaps no issue about the tech companies, though, has united lawmakers in the Capitol like the decimation of local news.
Lawmakers from both parties blame companies like Facebook and Google, which dominate the online ad industry.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, gave a big boost last week to a bill that may provide some papers a lifeboat. The proposal would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. (The bill is backed by the News Media Alliance, a trade group that represents news organizations including The New York Times Company.)
The proposal was sponsored by Representative Doug Collins, a conservative Georgia Republican whose district includes Cornelia. It was written by Representative David Cicilline, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island. Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, sponsored an identical version in the Senate. Prominent co-sponsors joined, including Democrats like Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.
For the politicians, the issue is personal. They see news deserts in places where one or two local newspapers used to track their campaigns and official actions, keep local police departments and school boards accountable, and stitch together communities with big layouts on Main Street holiday parades and high school sports stars.
“I am a free-markets guy and have fought against the idea that just because something is big it is necessarily bad,” Mr. Collins said. “But look, I’m a politician and live with the media and see its importance. These big, disruptive platforms are making money off creators of content disproportionately.”
Facebook and Google declined to comment about the legislation. Representatives of the companies say their businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to bolster local journalism. The companies also work with news organizations to promote their articles and videos, driving traffic to their websites.
Facebook recently announced partnerships with major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN, that would see some of the publishers paid for the content they share.
“We know this is a challenging time for journalism,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement. “And we are working closely with publishers to find new ways to address those challenges.”
A Google spokeswoman said, “Every month, Google News and Google Search drive over 24 billion visits to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue.”
Newspapers have faced devastating financial losses for years. One in five newspapers has closed since 2004 in the United States, and about half of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties have only one newspaper, many of them printing weekly, according to a report by the University of North Carolina published in late 2018. In the last year alone, Facebook and Google added tens of thousands of employees and reported billions of dollars in profits.
Take Mr. Collins’s district in northern Georgia. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the state’s biggest newspaper, has cut its staff by half in the past eight years. In Mr. Collins’s hometown, The Gainesville Times, one of the biggest papers in its region, cut its weekly print publication schedule to five days from seven a year ago.
The demand for local news remains. One day shortly after the fatal car crash, all of the discussion at Fender’s Diner, a 1950s-inspired eatery in Cornelia, was about the victim and allegations that the woman behind the wheel of the S.U.V. had been drinking.
“I care more about the people who walk through my front door of my place and the issues that matter to them than anything going on in Washington,” said Bradley Cook, the owner of the restaurant.
Many local leaders say the power of local newspapers was on display recently in Jesup, in southeastern Georgia. One of Mr. NeSmith’s papers in the area, The Press Sentinel in Wayne County, discovered that an Arizona-based company backed by wealthy investors, including Bill Gates, had quietly applied to dump 10,000 tons of coal ash per day in Jesup.
The paper published more than 70 articles about the application, and Mr. NeSmith wrote several editorials. The attention led to public hearings, and the company, Republic Services, to delay its plans.
Many officials also say that without robust local coverage, they are constantly fighting against misinformation that spreads on social media. After the Board of Commissioners in Habersham County, Ga., proposed a bond issue to expand the county jail, speculation spread online about the motivations for the project and the burden for taxpayers, said Stacy Hall, the board’s chairman. Voters defeated the proposal in November.
“Disinformation on social media is our No. 1 problem,” Mr. Hall said. “There is a crisis in getting the facts — the basic facts that only community newspapers can provide.”
The proposed antitrust exemption for news organizations still faces hurdles. Congress passed few bills of note in 2019 — and it may pass even fewer this year, in the face of impeachment and the November election. Conservative think tanks and some consumer groups are pushing back on the bill, wary of giving any antitrust exemptions to businesses.
“Instead of trying to innovate and find solutions that way,” said Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow for technology and innovation at the Charles Koch Institute, “they are trying to make better deals with people with more money, and that doesn’t solve their basic business-model problems.”
Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.
“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.
But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.
“The tech industry platforms benefit from our news,” said Robin Rhodes, the executive director of the Georgia Press Association, which supports the proposal. “And we need to be on a level playing ground.”