Many small newspapers across America are in dire economic straits — a situation exacerbated by the business practices of the biggest technology companies — and Congress has responded with some rare bipartisan agreement, The New York Times reported in a story published in Monday’s LNP | LancasterOnline. “The proposal would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies,” the Times reported.
We are pleased to see Republicans and Democrats rally around an issue that relates directly to the freedom of the press that’s so essential to democracy.
Have no doubt: We cannot have “freedom of the press” without having a press. Yet that is increasingly the case in many U.S. communities.
“Newspapers have faced devastating financial losses for years,” the Times explained. “One in five newspapers has closed since 2004 in the United States, and about half of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties have only one newspaper, many of them printing weekly, according to a report by the University of North Carolina published in late 2018.”
Areas with little or no local newspaper coverage become “news deserts.” It is an awful thing for any community.
We wrote last March about what can happen when the watchdog function of local journalism disappears: “It’s hard to imagine no one covering a local school board, as it plans to build an expensive new facility. Or no one covering the state lawmakers deciding how tax dollars should be spent. Imagine no one covering the construction of a natural gas pipeline as it cuts through local neighborhoods. Or no one covering the turmoil in a county office. Or the alleged defrauding of a local energy business by its CEO.”
The residents of Cornelia, Georgia, still have a watchdog. But The Northeast Georgian has just five staffers, and they hustle to do everything — report, edit, take photos and design pages for the two print editions per week. They are doing all they can to keep serving their community.
But the tech giants are working against them.
When The Northeast Georgian recently covered a big story, it posted updates on Facebook, resulting in hundreds of shares. “But unless the people who shared its story on Facebook follow a link to its website, either to see an ad or to subscribe to its twice-weekly print edition, the paper won’t get paid,” The Times reported.
In this way, Facebook and Google are dooming media outlets that have few other routes to reach online readers.
As another Times article from last October explained, Facebook and Google pull in about 80% of all online advertising revenue, leaving little available for media companies, especially small newspapers. Accessing that online revenue stream is perhaps the only hope newspapers have to compensate for years of declining print advertisement revenue.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “gave a big boost last week to a bill that may provide some papers a lifeboat,” the Times reported. It would let multiple news organizations combine their negotiating power to wrestle better deals from the tech companies that share their journalistic content.
It has a wide array of supporters in both chambers of Congress, including GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
It’s encouraging to see politicians of differing views understanding the importance of local news.
“I am a free-markets guy and have fought against the idea that just because something is big it is necessarily bad,” Collins said. “But look, I’m a politician and live with the media and see its importance. These big, disruptive platforms are making money off creators of content disproportionately.”
And Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate for president, tweeted last month about her personal experience with the importance of journalism: “Thinking of my dad on #LoveMyNewspaper Day. He got his start in the newspaper business delivering Grit, a small-town & rural weekly paper & went on to work 43 years in journalism. He taught me the importance of a free press and now more than ever — it’s crucial to our democracy.”
We should note that Facebook recently unveiled new deals with major news outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN, that would pay them for the content they share. But that’s hardly going to help little newspapers like the one in northeastern Georgia.
And there’s this: In a nation of fewer newspapers, there are fewer avenues to counter disinformation campaigns — many launched by foreign governments — during this presidential election year.
“Disinformation on social media is our No. 1 problem,” Stacy Hall, chairman of the board of commissioners in Habersham County, Georgia, told The Times. “There is a crisis in getting the facts — the basic facts that only community newspapers can provide.”
We are fortunate in this community. While newspapers struggle and shutter elsewhere in our nation, Lancaster County still strongly supports journalism, both print and online.
“Our readers depend on us, engage with us, criticize us — but certainly don’t ignore us,” we wrote last March. “For that we are deeply grateful. ... (LNP | LancasterOnline) is also family-owned, which has given it stability in a storm-tossed industry.”
Not every newspaper has that stability. Sadly, not every county has a newspaper paying close attention to how the people’s business is conducted. So we’re heartened that Congress is trying to address the problems those big tech companies have caused for so many local newspapers.