PD Editorial: Google antitrust suit highlights threat to the local free press
An antitrust suit that challenges Google’s dominance of online advertising offers hope for the survival of the local free press. Justice moves slowly, however, and in the meantime, Congress should take steps to help local news survive.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta this week joined the U.S. Justice Department and several other states in the lawsuit against Google. “Google has used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies,” the suit alleges.
There’s no question that Google has a dominant position in online advertising. Only Facebook even comes close to matching its market share. Google uses its position to dictate terms to sites that sell advertising space, taking a hefty percentage of the revenue.
That’s had a huge impact on local newspapers. As the news and news consumers have shifted away from print to online, Google’s slice has become an increasingly large share of advertising revenue. That cuts into the money that a news organization has available to pay reporters to cover things like city council meetings, high school sports and other topics of local interest that no major statewide or national news organization would cover.
The situation is dire. Since 2005, a quarter of local newspapers nationwide — about 2,500 of them — have closed. They leave behind communities where civic engagement declines and the electorate lacks knowledge about local government to make informed decisions at the ballot box. Many more news organizations have eliminated newsroom staff, some 40,000 positions across the country.
If the suit succeeds and brings fairness and competition to digital advertising, it would be a critical boon for local news and for democracy. Right now, Google unilaterally dictates the terms to news organizations. Take the deal or good luck finding another source of digital advertising.
That help could come too late, though. Just in the past couple of weeks news organizations large and small have announced layoffs. On average two newspapers close every week. Barring a quick settlement by Google, legal proceedings will drag on for years.
Some members of Congress tried to help last year, but things fell apart in the harried end-of-year budget negotiations. Now that lawmakers are back at work in Washington, it behooves them to revive proposals like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would let news outlets temporarily band together to negotiate better terms with Google and Facebook. The behemoths can ignore one newspaper, but they cannot ignore all newspapers lest they lose access to the news content that so many digital consumers crave.
Another bill worth bringing back this year is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. It would provide tax credits to local news organizations that retain reporters, to households that subscribe to news sources and to small businesses that buy advertising in them. It would be a lifeline while other measures are implemented.
Both bills had bipartisan support. They could be an early, easy opportunity for the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate to prove that they can work together.
America’s founders knew that the free press was essential to a functioning democracy. America mustn’t stand idly by while tech behemoths dismantle it.
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