Big Tech has put local journalism on life support, and it’s undermining our ability to govern ourselves.
In the past two decades, Americans have watched their local papers shutter their doors or reduce their footprint in their communities as Google and Facebook have become dominant forces in the dissemination of all news and information. The dominant tech platforms have built an advertising duopoly and deployed algorithms to systematically prevent small and independent publishers from earning fair compensation for their content, devaluing high-quality journalism in favor of memes, provocative click-bait and censorship.
Local journalism is essential to a functioning democracy. It holds elected officials accountable, informs citizens about important issues, and provides a common space for dialogue and debate. Furthermore, local news is trusted. Despite political polarization, 73% of Americans have confidence in their local paper, according to a survey from Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
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Google and Facebook's complete dominance of the digital advertising market also has allowed them to dictate terms, cut side deals and charge exorbitant ad fees -- up to 70% of every advertising dollar. As a result of Big Tech’s corporate cronyism, local reporting is being cut off in communities across the nation and rural communities in particular, resulting in an increase in political polarization and corruption.
The rise of the internet and social media has been a double-edged sword for the news industry. On the one hand, it has provided new paths to reach consumers. On the other hand, it has rerouted traditional advertising revenue, leading to widespread layoffs and closures at many local papers.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), a bipartisan bill being considered in the lame-duck session in Congress, is designed to level the playing field exclusively for small, local and independent publishers by allowing them to collectively negotiate with Big Tech for fair compensation for their journalistic content. The bill even incentivizes these publishers to use the funds that result from the negotiations to invest in journalists and newsroom staff to protect our constitutional freedoms of speech and press. Thousands of hometown papers, as well as 70% of the American people, support the JCPA.
Facebook petulantly responded to the prospect of competing in a fair market by effectively blaring that it was taking its ball and going home by threatening to remove small, local and independent news on Facebook altogether if the bill became law.
Facebook’s threats to ban news are similar to its recent attempts to bully the Australian government when legislation like the JCPA, called the News Media Bargaining Code, was being debated. Despite Meta’s threats and fearmongering, the code was implemented and has revitalized journalism in Australia. Hundreds of publications have benefitted from the code and brought in over $140 million -- more money than expected.
The mere fact that Facebook can make these threats to lawmakers around the world underscores why it needs to be held accountable in the first place. Facebook knows it doesn’t have to play fair, and it is willing to throw its weight around to protect the pockets of Silicon Valley aristocrats, even if it means destroying the free press.
When the Founders were crafting the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson ominously wrote that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Unfortunately, if Congress does not pass the JCPA, the hypothetical “government without newspapers” that Thomas Jefferson postulated will become a reality in a way that he and our Founding Fathers could never have imagined.
Instead, Big Tech will continue to fill the void with its platforms, fueled by algorithms optimized to keep readers outraged and at each other's throats. All the while, its executives and investors will continue to reap staggering profits from the economic and political disfunction they are creating. We collectively call on Congress to pass the JCPA during the lame-duck session before it’s too late.
Coffey is executive vice president and general counsel for the News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news media outlets worldwide: newsmediaalliance.org.