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Another Opinion

Another Opinion: A way to help the revitalization of local news

This is not a newsflash: The local newspaper is a dying breed. Not big national papers like The Washington Post, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and not some larger regional ones that have weathered financial storms to find a measure of stability. But across the country, small dailies and weeklies — the lifeblood of American journalism — are shutting down almost by the day. And that is a deeply troubling trend for democracy.

The situation has been dire for years. Between 2004 and 2019, the country lost 2,100 newspapers, the vast majority of them weeklies or nondailies, according to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. In 2019 alone — before the pandemic hit — the media industry laid off more than 7,800 workers. The pandemic has only accelerated the trend, leaving a rising tide of “news deserts”: communities with one or no newspapers.

The causes of the industry’s near collapse are complex, but one factor stands out: The stunning rise of internet giants like Google and Facebook. With their ability to reach into billions of mobile phones and laptops, the two companies alone suck up about six of every 10 dollars spent on digital advertising today in the United States. And they have become the main source of news for many Americans. By one estimate, as much as 40 percent of search results on Google are for news.

You might ask: Where does that content come from? To a large extent, from the very news organizations that are struggling to make a buck in the digital landscape controlled by Google and Facebook. And yet those media outlets are bearing most of the cost for actually gathering the news. Whether that entails sending photographers, videographers and writers to war zones; dispatching teams to investigate government corruption; or hiring beat reporters to cover school boards, state legislatures, and high school sports, good journalism isn’t cheap.

When those journalistic eyes have been shut by the death of a newspaper, accountability is lost and corruption too often flourishes unchecked. This is what is happening in small towns and big cities, court houses and state houses across America.

What can be done? This month, Congress has begun debating legislation that could provide a measure of relief to small and mid-sized news organizations.

Known as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, the bill would temporarily suspend antitrust restrictions on the news industry, enabling media companies to form cooperatives to negotiate for revenue from the big Internet platforms that use their content. When an agreement can’t be reached, the bill authorizes newspaper publishers to enter into baseball-style arbitration with the platforms. It also would provide incentives to media companies to plow that revenue into hiring more journalists and not just into paying rent or enriching shareholders and owners.

The three largest national newspapers — The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal — are not covered by the bill. Neither are the major national television networks. But just about every other newspaper and local television outlet in the country, including The Eagle, could benefit from its provisions.

The trade association that includes Google and Facebook, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, has raised a variety of concerns about the bill, including that it will allow the creation of media “cartels” and will hamper the platforms’ efforts to moderate hateful content. The News Media Alliance, an association of newspaper publishers, disputes both assertions.

The digital platforms also argue that they do pay for some content and that the bill minimizes the value they bring to local news companies by broadly distributing their content and directing readers to their websites. But the continuing decline of local papers seems a fair indication that whatever value Google and Facebook provide, it hasn’t nearly compensated for the value they have taken away.

A similar law that passed in Australia last year has led to deals in which Google and Facebook have paid at least $140 million to news companies, according to one study. France is among several European countries that have also enacted a version of the law, while Canada and Britain are considering following suit.

The JCPA is being championed by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., but it includes significant bipartisan support. “Newspapers are locked in a life-or-death struggle with tech giants like Google and Facebook, and it’s not a fair fight,” said the lead Republican sponsor in the Senate, John Kennedy of Louisiana, when the bill was introduced last year. “Google and Facebook aren’t just companies — they’re countries, and we can’t tolerate tech giants strangling their print news competitors.”

Kennedy has firsthand experience: His state has lost at least 20 papers since 2005. But the trend is nationwide. According to the Hussman School study, half of the nation’s counties have only one newspaper and two out of three no longer have a daily newspaper. In those news deserts — which tend to be older, poorer and more rural — residents increasingly turn to free online sources of news. Many journalism experts see disinformation spreading faster in news deserts because they have few or no independent arbiters of news.

Penny Muse Abernathy, a former newspaper executive who teaches journalism at Northwestern and has studied local news extensively, notes that local papers are the backbone of the nation’s news ecosystem, providing coverage that often alerts bigger dailies and networks to important events, from police brutality to mass shootings to local corruption.

Those newspapers “have helped bound this very vast country of ours together,” she told The Boston Globe. Now, when the country often feels like it is unbinding, the time has come to fortify our crumbling news ecosystem by passing the JCPA.

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