PD Editorial: Congress still can help local journalism
The American newspaper industry is struggling, and so is our democracy. Helping the former would protect the latter.
Election Day passed without most of the worst fears of violence or ballot skulduggery happening. But America remains a highly polarized nation, divided into camps with neither trusting the other. They no longer share a common set of well-reported facts on which to make judgments and decisions. That bridge used to be local journalism, but it has disappeared in some communities and withers in others.
An opportunity exists for Congress to rise above the acrimony of the just-concluded election season, reinvigorate local journalism and, by doing so, follow the founders’ lead in enabling democracy.
The Senate will have to act quickly. Time is running out to pass the bipartisan Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, which has been introduced as S. 673 and H.R. 1735.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in September, but it has yet to get a floor vote.
The legislation would move local publishers and broadcasters closer to an even playing field with Big Tech, which profits immensely from using the content of local journalism outlets but doesn’t fairly compensate them for the ad revenue that their work yields for the social media behemoths. Google and Facebook hold all the power, putting local newspapers and broadcasters in a take-it-or-leave-it situation in establishing rates.
The JCPA would temporarily enable local and regional news outlets to collaboratively negotiate with companies such as Alphabet and Meta, which own Google and Facebook respectively. The legislation is necessary to provide an exemption from federal antitrust laws that usually bar such coordinated negotiations.
This is neither a unique idea nor a passing fancy. A similar approach, the News Media Bargaining Code, has worked well in Australia. Similar efforts are underway in Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
For those who fear the legislation constitutes inappropriate political interference into the business world, they need only look at the founders’ example. From the beginning, the connection between a free press and democracy was clear. The founders gave the free press constitutional protection in the First Amendment and even subsidized distribution of newspapers by the U.S. Postal Service.
Modern newspapers face a financial conundrum. They have record audiences, thanks to online readers, but revenue has drastically declined. As a result, more than a quarter of U.S. newspapers have disappeared since 2005. More than a fifth of the U.S. population now resides in “news deserts” with extremely limited access to local news.
“In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout,” according to “The State of Local News: 2022” produced by Northwestern University. “This is a crisis for our democracy and our society.”
The JCPA, though not a panacea, would give news organizations a fighting chance against the internet giants that control so much of how and what people learn about the world. It deserves swift Senate action during the lame duck session so that the free press is in a stronger position to hold Congress and other elected bodies accountable in the new year.
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