Bipartisanship Is Alive to Save Local News from Big Tech

June 11, 2019

By Justin Chermol

In an era of entrenched political partisanship, it is rare for an issue to receive bipartisan backing. Yet two lawmakers from across the aisle have teamed up to support local news outlets against big tech companies like Facebook and Google.

"I am glad that you and I have found some commonality on this, and I'm looking forward to working together," Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, told Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) on Tuesday during a hearing on the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which the two lawmakers co-sponsored.

The House committee's inquiry into the competition in digital markets comes after massive layoffs in the media and news industry. Just this year, the sector suffered 2,900 layoffs from companies like CNN, GateHouse Media, BuzzFeed, Vice, Verizon, and others.

"Companies like Facebook and Google swallow up 60 percent of digital ad revenue, and so it doesn't leave much of the pie for actual content creators, and for news publishers, which is why I got laid off in January, it's why local newspapers are going under," Laura Bassett, a former culture and political reporter for nearly 10 years at HuffPost, told Cheddar.

Bassett, who was laid off from the website, is now the founder of the Save Journalism Project, an initiative that raises awareness of the dominance of tech giants over the news industry.

"Journalism is vital to a healthy democracy," she added.

The battle between local media and tech firms ultimately comes down to advertising revenue, and its key role in keeping a publisher afloat. Cicilline and Collins proposed bill would give news publishers a four year antitrust exemption so these companies could organize against big tech to collectively bargain and even the playing field. The bill has received support from over 200,000 local and national news publications and 44 state press associations.

"This will help protect journalism, promote competition and allow communities to stay informed,” Collins said in a statement in April.

Collins said Tuesday the bill does not promise the break up of big tech companies.

"If individual news outlets could count on being able to negotiate fair attribution and advertising revenue agreements with the online platforms, the bleeding could be stopped," Collins said at the committee meeting called 'Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 1: The Free and Diverse Press.' "The problem, however, is that smaller news organizations don't stand a fair negotiating chance when they try to negotiate deals with the platform giants."

Among witnesses who testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee were David Chavern, the president of News Media Alliance, a trade association representing nearly 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, as well as David Pitofsky, general counsel for News Corp.

Platforms like Facebook ($FB) and Google ($GOOGL) "have little, if any commitment to accuracy or reliability. For them, a news article is valuable if viral, not verified," Pitofsky told lawmakers.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

FEMALE_1: So I think the first step really is to

FEMALE_1: start regulating them and breaking them up.

FEMALE_1: The problem is companies like Facebook and Google swallow

FEMALE_1: up 60 percent of digital ad revenue.

FEMALE_1: And so it doesn't leave much of the pie for

FEMALE_1: the actual content creators and for news publishers,

FEMALE_1: which is why, it's why I got laid off in January,

FEMALE_1: it's why local newspapers are going under.

FEMALE_1: So what needs to happen is,

FEMALE_1: we need to find a way to require

FEMALE_1: these tech companies to share

FEMALE_1: the profits with the people who are

FEMALE_1: actually creating the content,

FEMALE_1: the- then going on their sites for them to profit off of.

MALE_1: I, if I'm not mistaken,

MALE_1: the goal that is to try and figure out,

MALE_1: how do we strengthen the

MALE_1: bargaining power that [OVERLAPPING].

FEMALE_1: Right.

MALE_1: Allow these newspapers have.

MALE_1: And so it's called the Journalism Competition

MALE_1: and, and Preservation Act.

FEMALE_1: That is Sweeney's proposal [OVERLAPPING].

MALE_1: That's Sweeney's proposal, okay.

FEMALE_1: Yes. Sweeney has proposed exempting

FEMALE_1: news organizations for four years

FEMALE_1: from any kind of antitrust laws.

FEMALE_1: Which means they would be able

FEMALE_1: to organize against tech companies

FEMALE_1: freely and being in

FEMALE_1: better position to negotiate in even the playing field.

MALE_1: Nice. And with this,

MALE_1: what sorts of news outlets

MALE_1: and newspapers are we're talking about?

MALE_1: Just kind of like the big names

MALE_1: at the massive level local papers [OVERLAPPING].

FEMALE_1: All of them, local newspaper,

FEMALE_1: from local newspapers like

FEMALE_1: The New Orleans Times-Picayune,

FEMALE_1: The Cleveland Plain Dealer,

FEMALE_1: all the way up to USA Today to Huff Post,

FEMALE_1: Buzz Feed, New York Times,

FEMALE_1: any kind of news publisher would be part of this law.

MALE_1: Now Big Tech has countered

MALE_1: proposals like this in the past and they'd say look,

MALE_1: the decline of newspapers

MALE_1: started way before there was a Facebook there.

MALE_1: These numbers were there. I mean,

MALE_1: how do you respond to that from the other end

MALE_1: knowing already that you're hearing

MALE_1: some push back from groups like [inaudible 00:01:28] from Facebook?

FEMALE_1: Yeah. Of course we're

FEMALE_1: hearing push back from Google and Facebook.

FEMALE_1: They don't want to be broken up

FEMALE_1: and they don't want to be regulated.

FEMALE_1: And I don't think they want to be blamed

FEMALE_1: for the decline of journalism.

FEMALE_1: And it is a more complicated issue

FEMALE_1: than just making them them an enemy, right?

MALE_1: Sure.

MALE_1: Of course, there are multiple reasons why,

MALE_1: why journalism is struggling in a digital age.

MALE_1: But one of them clearly is the fact that

MALE_1: these big tech companies are

MALE_1: eating up all of the ad profits.

MALE_1: So no matter, uh, you know Huff Post and Buzz Feed

MALE_1: were growing or getting more and more traffic every year,

MALE_1: but still the, the advertisers were just

MALE_1: flocking to Facebook and Google instead

MALE_1: of advertising on the actual platform.

MALE_1: And so you can't really argue that that's

MALE_1: not having a huge effect on journalism.

MALE_1: Laura this was fascinating to me.

MALE_1: News media [inaudible 00:02:08] has said that last year Google brought

MALE_1: in 4.7 billion dollars worth in revenue.

MALE_1: The company pushed back against it but

MALE_1: would not say what the figure actually is.

MALE_1: Why do you think that that's the case?

FEMALE_1: Well, I, it could be because some people

FEMALE_1: are estimating that the number is way bigger than that.

FEMALE_1: And so giving, uh, an actual number that's in

FEMALE_1: the billions of money that Google is making off news,

FEMALE_1: it does not really look

FEMALE_1: good for them when they're actually

FEMALE_1: strangling the publishers that they're benefiting from.

FEMALE_1: So I think they, they don't want any,

FEMALE_1: you know, that number has been disputed.

FEMALE_1: Um, but it could be,

FEMALE_1: it could be way bigger than that.

FEMALE_1: So, uh, I think that they have

FEMALE_1: a vested interest in not having

FEMALE_1: the public know how much they're profiting off.

MALE_1: Yeah. And finally, you and I were just

MALE_1: talking right out there before we came here live.

MALE_1: It's not very frequently you can have Doug Collins and

MALE_1: David Cicilline in the same conversation

MALE_1: at least on the same side.

MALE_1: So what does this tell you

MALE_1: the fact that you got Democrats and

MALE_1: Republicans saying something's got to be done here,

MALE_1: this is clearly a bipartisan issue for us to consider?

FEMALE_1: Well, it is. Journalism is vital to a healthy democracy.

FEMALE_1: It should be a bipartisan issue.

FEMALE_1: This should not be a Republican or Democrat thing at all.

FEMALE_1: It benefits everyone to

FEMALE_1: have journalists speaking truth to power,

FEMALE_1: to have all local communities represented with

FEMALE_1: local newspapers and hopefully

FEMALE_1: all of leadership can get behind this.