Washington • Newspapers create the content, but tech giants are sucking up the profit.
So argued newspaper executives and advocates Tuesday in Washington as Congress considers legislation aimed at allowing news outlets to work with search engines like Google and social media providers to reclaim some of the profit from their content in an attempt to ensure newsrooms aren’t hollowed out or closed altogether.
“Too often, the debate about [news] media and tech platforms is framed within a discussion of international news brands. But the greatest peril for our nation lurks at the local level, where a regional or community paper must cope with a fast-changing technological and financial landscape,” said Kevin Riley, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Social media has forever altered the local news ecosystem and changed the way people consume news,” Riley added. “In the sea of fast-moving, 24-hour news, newspapers provide deeply reported, authoritative local news amidst the frenzy. Local newspapers employ reporters and have a very real stake in a local community’s well-being and economy.”
The hearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee comes on top of a new report by the News Media Alliance that estimated Google alone made $4.7 billion in ad revenue in 2018 by scraping content from news publishers.
Google disputes that figure — “These back-of-the-envelope calculations are inaccurate, as a number of experts are pointing out,” a Google spokesperson said — and the company says it actually helps news outlets by pushing readers their way.
A bipartisan bill seeks to help news organizations, especially local ones, control their content and would lift antitrust laws for four years to allow news producers to negotiate with tech companies on how content is shared.
“In recent years, there has been a cascade of competition problems on the internet,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “Concentration in the digital advertising market has pushed local journalism to the verge of extinction.”
The Salt Lake Tribune is not immune from the carnage that local and regional newspapers have seen in the past two decades. Publisher Paul Huntsman, who bought the paper in 2016 and has been pouring his own fortune into the operation to keep it afloat, recently announced that he’s seeking IRS approval to turn the paper into a nonprofit.
That’s not an effort addressed in the legislation, though its authors say allowing publishers to reap some of the ad revenue tech companies are taking would help keep reporters on the beat.
“This is not just the sale of widgets," Cicilline told CNN on Sunday. "This is about voters’ ability, the American people’s ability, to access trustworthy, reliable local news, to hold officials to account, to expose corruption. This is a centerpiece of our democracy.”
Google is pushing back on the narrative repeated at Tuesday’s hearing.
“We've worked for many years to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to the news industry as it works to adapt to the new economics of the internet,” said Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google. “Every month, Google News and Google Search drive over 10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue.”
Gingras adds that Google has worked with publishers to help improve their mobile apps and the company has launched a news initiative to help “quality journalism thrive.”
David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, says it’s not just Google but all tech companies that make money off journalism and that the future of democracy is at stake.
“In today’s digital age, the tech giants’ dual control over news distribution and monetization threatens the very survival of news organizations,” he said. “These tech giants use secret, unpredictable algorithms to determine how and even whether content is delivered to readers. They scrape news organizations’ content and use it to their own ends, without permission or remuneration for the companies that generated the content in the first place.”
Riley, of the Journal-Constitution, says the situation is more dire than people realize.
“If others repackage our journalism and make money off it, yet none of that money makes its way back to the local paper, then it makes breaking that next story or exposing the next scandal more challenging,” he said. “If that cycle continues indefinitely, quality local journalism will slowly wither and eventually cease to exist.”
The newspaper bill, dubbed the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, has only Cicilline and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., as sponsors so far. No Utah members have signed on.