Duluth News Tribune

By News Tribune Editorial Board

Journalists — in particular local journalists like those at the News Tribune — are the ones monitoring how city councils, school boards, and other public bodies spend public dollars; how law enforcement treats local citizens; and how road repairs, the awarding of public contracts, and so much more affect all of us.

It’s work that’s critically important. Responsible newsgathering is also expensive. But right now, the revenue needed to support the work isn’t going to hardworking local reporters or their newspapers and other news outlets. Instead, tech giants like Facebook and Google are taking and republishing local news content while pilfering away the advertising dollars that support it.

“These big-tech companies are not friends to journalism,” U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota testified this month at a Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on competition, antitrust, and consumer rights, as they relate to journalism. “They are raking in ad dollars while taking news content, feeding it to their users, and refusing to offer fair compensation. And they’re making money on consumers’ backs by using the content produced by news outlets to suck up as much data about each reader as they can. So, it’s kind of a double whammy, right? … They’re not compensating for it as they should, and, at the same time, they are getting the revenue off the consumers that read the content.”

This means “less revenue for local news, fewer journalists to do in-depth, high-quality reporting, more exposure to misinformation, and fewer reliable sources,” Klobuchar further stated. “That’s why we need to step in to level the playing field.”

One promising way is allowing local news publishers and broadcasters to band together to negotiate with the digital platforms. Legislation called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would do just that.

There's no way individual newspapers can wield enough economic heft to negotiate effectively on their own with the online giants, but a "safe harbor" from antitrust laws, as detailed in the act, could help publishers join together in the name of recouping and recapturing lost subscription and advertising dollars.

The fallout of Google’s and Facebook’s practices on local newsrooms is disturbing to anyone who values reliable information. An estimated 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020, as WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston, reported last summer. In addition, approximately 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country without any local news coverage at all. That means no one to watchdog local elected leaders and their decisions that impact us where we live.

“Think about these numbers,” the Dallas Morning News further implored in an editorial just last week. “In 2008, the entire U.S. newspaper industry collected $37 billion in advertising revenue. By 2020, that number has fallen to less than $9 billion. (Meanwhile, in) a single quarter last year, Google reported $61 billion in ad revenue.”

France and Australia already have passed legislation similar to the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act that’s now before the U.S. Congress. Canada and the United Kingdom are in the process.

“Opponents of this effort, including powerful members of Congress who have accepted substantial donations from Big Tech, argue that this would create a ‘news cartel.’ That's not a serious scenario,” the Dallas newspaper argued. “Instead, the opposite is more likely. This would give more publishers, with different points of view, the opportunity to set up news organizations that reflect what their communities want.”

Klobuchar’s legislation isn’t the only effort aimed at saving local journalism.

The federally proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act would create tax credits for print or digital local newspaper publishers who employ and hire local journalists. The credits would help decelerate newsroom layoffs.

There also are national nonprofits and public-service endeavors working to save local news. They include the Journalism Funding Partners (jfp-local.org/impact), the Fund for Local Journalism (givebutter.com/ fundforlocaljournalism), and the Seattle Times' Save the Free Press Initiative. Their laudable efforts also deserve support from all of us who bristle at the rising proliferation of misinformation, false statements, and outright propaganda.

It's on all of us to support congressional, nonprofit, and other efforts to protect and ensure reliable, trustworthy local news.

“We need to recognize that what separates the news from the vast majority of our other industries is its crucial role in our democratic system of government,” testified Klobuchar, the daughter of a newspaper columnist. “That’s why our founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. So when the exercise of monopoly power results in a market failure in our news industry, it’s critically important for our democracy that we act. … The closures of local newspapers can lead to higher municipal borrowing costs and increased government inefficiency. This means less money for schools, hospitals, and roads. 

“I think we can all agree that ensuring the future of a vibrant and independent free press is essential to the fabric of our democracy and the American way of life.”