Like so many aspects of our lives and segments of our economy, the business model of publications such as ours has been inexorably disrupted in the digital age.
On the advertising side, businesses and individuals today have access to a broad range of tools beyond print through which to connect consumers with their goods and services. On the editorial side, many subscribers have turned to social media and other sources of information – or, unfortunately, tuned out altogether.
The solution would seem clear. Rather than relying on print advertising revenues and physical subscriptions for revenue, businesses like ours should increase our editorial presence in the digital realm and support that work through web advertising – in other words, utilize a similar approach on more modern platforms.
It’s not so simple, in large part because of the dominance a small collection of corporate behemoths – Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon – exert over online news platforms and advertising. The work of local journalists, as a result, often fuels a content engine designed to enrich these web giants rather than support themselves and their employers.
“Facebook and Google make up a duopoly in the marketplace,” reads a press release from the office of Rhode Island U.S. Rep. David Cicilline. “Nearly three out of every four Americans get news from platforms controlled by these two corporations. Currently, the duopoly is capturing 83 percent of all digital ad revenue growth and 73 percent of total U.S. digital advertising.”
To help level the playing field, Cicilline introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which seeks to “provide a temporary safe harbor for the publishers of online content to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which their content may be distributed.”
“Our democracy is strongest when we have a free, open press that informs citizens, holds public officials accountable, and roots out corruption …This bill empowers local newspapers to negotiate collectively with the biggest technology platforms to ensure consumers have access to the best journalism possible,” Cicilline said in the release.
Changing behaviors on the part of news consumers provide additional evidence of the need for action.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 found that most Americans – 47 percent – prefer watching news, compared with 34 percent who like to read news and 19 percent who choose to listen to it.
Seventy-five percent of those who prefer watching news say television remains their chosen medium, versus 20 percent who turn to the web. Those who like to read news, however, opt for online sources over print publications by a margin of 63 percent to 17 percent.
Unsurprisingly, 76 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 49 who elect to read their news opt for online sources. Forty-three percent of those 50 and older in the same group chose print options. In 2016, 49 percent of that 50-plus age group preferred print options.
How will Cicilline’s proposal help? According to his statement, it would provide a 48-month window during which antitrust restrictions would be lifted. That would allow for local newspaper companies to collectively “negotiate fair terms that would flow subscription and advertising dollars back to publishers, while protecting and preserving Americans’ right to access quality news.”
We add our voice to a growing chorus across the news business in calling on federal lawmakers to support Cicilline’s proposal.
Companies like Facebook and Google have flourished, in large part, due to the data content they are provided by individuals and publishers. In many ways, their tools and platforms have changed the world for the better. But their success should come with an expectation of social responsibility, and it is no secret that they have frequently fallen short on that count.
As a local, independent publishing company, we cherish the role we play in our communities and strive to play an essential role in civic life. We also understand the necessity to connect with our readers in new ways.
Cicilline’s bill represents an important step in helping companies like ours – across Rhode Island and beyond – to continue carrying out our mission as we adapt to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.
Frank Pasquale, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, perhaps best outlined the stakes in a quote in Cicilline’s press release.
“If independent media organizations can’t collectively bargain for better terms,” he said, “we should expect media concentration to accelerate as journalists scramble for some bargaining power against massive platforms.”
Rhode Islanders have seen all to well the effects of such media concentration on the quality and scope of local media coverage. We hope members of our communities, and those who represent them in the nation’s capital, see the continued value of local, independent journalism.