By Chris Jennewein
The bipartisan Journalism Competition and Preservation Act now being discussed on Capitol Hill is bad news for journalism in America.
The House bill, sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline and Georgia Republican Doug Collins, would provide newspapers and some online publishers with a four-year antitrust exemption, allowing them to band together in negotiations with Google, Facebook and Twitter.
It’s really an attempt by America’s fading newspaper companies to protect their outdated business model while they double-down on their aging Baby Boomer audience.
The legislation would effectively allow a handful of large newspaper groups and their affiliated online publishing operations to control how Google, Facebook and Twitter display news content. The result would be a news cartel that excludes broadcast television, cable news and the growing numbers of independent local news publishers.
If the legislation is approved, along with a companion bill in the Senate, content from a small number of metropolitan newspapers might be able to dominate online news and squeeze out the entrepreneurs and innovators.
Yes, the newspaper industry is hurting. But it’s hard for those who really know that industry to feel much sympathy. Massive profits in the 1990s and early 2000s were squandered by failing to invest in new media, while eye-popping advertising rates, increased year after year, opened the door for Craigslist, Groupon and others.
The legislation as written only targets Google, Facebook and Twitter, describing “online content distributors” as those companies that have “not fewer than 1,000,000,000
monthly active users.” And the intent is clearly to extract some kind of payment from these Silicon Valley innovators.
“Journalism is critical to our civic society. The major tech platforms know this and they extract the value from our reporting without adequately compensating the publishers who create it,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance. “News publishers need the ability to band together to negotiate a sustainable future for quality journalism.”
How do Google et al supposedly extract value? By providing a link in a search result or social media post. Now if a reader’s only goal is to get the first few words of a headline in a search result, then the value has indeed been extracted. But most readers want much more. So they click on the link to read the full article and see accompanying ads. That is a big benefit to newspapers from the online giants.
The real problem for newspapers isn’t online search. It’s that they have never effectively developed their online businesses or monetized them. Their focus has always been the print edition.
Even three decades into a long-term decline in print circulation, newspapers devote most of their staff and resources to print, treating online audiences and advertisers as an afterthought. That’s the reason for “paywalls” and the giveaway of online ads as “value added” in return for long-term print advertising contracts.
In other words, the newspaper industry remains focused on its distinguished printed past. But even Congress can’t bring that back.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego. He worked in the newspaper industry for over 35 years and was general manager of the team that created the first complete online newspaper at the San Jose Mercury News in 1993.
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