Unless something changes, local news may disappear. But Congress can help, The Editorial Board writes

Utahns can contact their members of Congress and ask them to support the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021.

(Jeff Chiu | AP file photo) In this Sept. 24, 2019, file photo a woman walks below a Google sign on the campus in Mountain View, Calif.

Technology has made it easy for people to share news with their friends, or with the whole world, with the tap of a finger. That’s marvelous.

But unless something changes very soon, the organizations that provide most of the news that is worth sharing — especially on the local level — may disappear.

Social media platforms and online search engines are raking in billions by, among other things, giving away the professional reporting, investigating, fact-checking and analyzing done by news organizations such as the one you are reading right now. Without paying for it. Even as they suck up the advertising dollars that used to pay for the journalism that democracy and a free society must have to survive.

That must end.

Utahns who care about their communities, their nation, democracy in general, should contact members of Congress and ask them to support the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021.

That is a bill now before the U.S. House and Senate that would provide local and regional journalism organizations a four-year “safe harbor” from the provisions of federal antitrust law so they could join together in numbers large enough to command the attention of online giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google and negotiate a deal that would have the tech giants pay for the material they now, basically, steal.

Without that waiver, it remains illegal for an alliance of newspapers and online news sites to join forces in a way that would make enough difference to get the attention of the tech giants. Each news organization by itself is not powerful enough to make the social media and search platforms understand that the current situation is not sustainable and that original news reporting takes reporters, photographers, web managers, editors and others. And that it costs real money to pay these people.

Congressional action to see that creators get their due has many precedents, including the Music Modernization Act, carried by then-Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. That law, signed in 2018, created a system by which songwriters could get paid by streaming services and other online carriers for the music they created.

Utah’s current senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, have expressed concern about the power of the big tech platforms. And modernization of antitrust law is an issue that Lee is taking a leadership position on, as a sponsor of what’s called the TEAM Act. That’s a bill intended to focus government attention not just on corporations that happen to be large and successful, but on those that are abusing their powerful positions in ways that harm not just competitors but, particularly, consumers.

Their assistance on this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Since 2004, more than 2,000 American newspapers — most of them weeklies — have gone out of business. Paid circulation has plummeted, as have the number of journalists paid to connect communities and shine a light on government and other powerful institutions.

Both of Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers shifted to weekly publication at the beginning of the year, betting their future on online distribution. The 129-year-old Davis Clipper, a weekly based in Bountiful, folded late in 2020, one of 17 Utah community weeklies to give up the ghost in recent years.

The Salt Lake Tribune, with new leadership and encouraging levels of community support, has transitioned to a nonprofit, focused on reaching readers wherever they choose to engage with us. Our prognosis today is hopeful. But not every community will be so fortunate to have local stakeholders who care enough to invest in local news.

Journalists and the organizations they work for benefit from a system that can display their work to the whole world. But if news organizations aren’t paid for it, if their work is basically filched to the benefit of the online platforms, it endangers the ability of those people and groups to keep doing what they do. Which is basically to help people in communities communicate, to hold those in power accountable and to make democracy possible.

The people who run Facebook, Twitter and Google have indicated that they have some understanding of the pickle their primary sources of local news are in. They have given grants to various news organizations, including The Tribune.

But the issues outline here are structural, and grants are subject to being taken away on a whim. That’s why a united news business needs to be given the power to negotiate as an equal with the online platforms and win what’s rightfully ours — payment for our work.