Republicans and Democrats in Congress seem to agree on almost nothing these days.
That’s why it’s startling to see bipartisan support for something you might think would be unpopular with politicians: the very local newspapers that hold elected officials accountable.
But it’s happening. And, given the gloomy state of the newspaper industry, it’s a rare break in the clouds.
“It does seem like we’re getting somewhere,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news publishers — mostly local newspapers, but also some national papers (including The Washington Post) and digital-only news sites.
The legislation in the House and Senate would provide a temporary “safe harbor” — a four-year antitrust exemption for news publishers as they negotiate with Google and Facebook over how news content is used and how advertising dollars are distributed.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) sees the two tech giants — the duopoly as they’re often called — as far too powerful in their damaging control of the news kingdom.
“They’ve pitted themselves against newspapers in a David-and-Goliath battle in which newspapers don’t have a stone to throw much less a slingshot to put it in,” Kennedy said in a statement.
“The readers are the true losers as newsrooms empty out across this country,” he said.
(The Senate co-sponsor is Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The House version of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which was introduced in April, is co-sponsored by Georgia Republican Douglas A. Collins and Rhode Island Democrat David N. Cicilline.)
Almost all American newspapers are in trouble. Once print advertising, their lifeblood, fell precipitously more than a decade ago, they’ve struggled to stay profitable enough to survive. Only a handful have managed to increase digital subscriptions enough to make a real difference.
And, sadly, many newspapers already have folded. The United States has lost 1,800 newspapers (mostly weeklies) since 2004, according to a University of North Carolina study of “news deserts” — areas in the United States that have no regular news coverage.
Many of those remaining — about 7,000 — are threatened, or have been hollowed out after round after round of cost-cutting layoffs. Newsrooms lost nearly half their staffs between 2008 and 2017, a Pew Research study said.
‘They’re going to disappear,” said famed investor Warren Buffett, discussing what he sees as the fate of most local newspapers in a recent interview with Yahoo News. His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns dozens of daily and weekly papers.
The newspaper business over the past several decades, Buffett said, “went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to . . . toast.”
When print advertising began to tank, years ago, newspaper publishers hoped that digital advertising would make up the difference.
That hasn’t happened. While Google and Facebook gave media organizations new, and popular, ways to distribute their journalism, they also sucked up much of the advertising revenue. Meanwhile, the tech platforms benefited because they drew lucrative audiences for “content” — the journalism produced by local reporters who, as a rule, are hard-working and not well paid.
It’s encouraging to see the newspaper publishers better organized and more aggressive than in the past. They even managed last year to help get the Trump administration’s new tariffs on Canadian newsprint (used for U.S. newspapers) overturned.
It’s even more encouraging to see senators and representatives understand the value that local newspapers bring to their constituents.
Facebook and Google, meanwhile, are mostly staying quiet about this, but tech-industry advocates want to portray this collective bargaining as collusion, Roll Call reported this week.
And when businesses collude, they say, consumers suffer.
That is undoubtedly true in most situations. Antitrust laws exist for good reasons.
But a temporary waiver — while newspapers try to right themselves at a critical time — is more than a good idea. It’s essential.
When local newspapers fail, all kinds of bad things happen. Various studies have shown that civic engagement falls off, government spending goes up, and unreliable or made-up stories get a stronger foothold. We lose our village squares, our ways of making sense of the world with shared facts, and our ability to hold public officials to account.
Before more of the remaining papers turn into “toast,” as Buffett prophesied, they need some serious, immediate help.
As for Google and Facebook, if fewer ad dollars go their way in the service of local journalism’s survival, I’m confident they will manage somehow.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.