The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How small news outlets are pushing back against Big Tech

(Matt Rourke/AP)

The three newsrooms where I worked in the 1980s and ’90s employed roughly six to 20 people, using an industry standard of one staff member for every 1,000 subscribers. Today, those newsrooms are lucky to have three or four staffers. I’m aware of some papers that function with only one.

Why the cutbacks, when the demand for local news endures? One big reason is that platforms like Google are functioning less as navigator and more as gatekeeper. An analysis of data from the Web analytics firm Similarweb found that nearly 65 percent of Google searches in 2020 ended without a click on a result. People are increasingly satisfied with search engine summaries and don’t click through to the original sources, depriving the content creators of digital ad revenue.

Small and medium newspapers are suffering most. Following the lead of a landmark suit filed in January by HD Media in West Virginia, owners and publishers of smaller newspapers are fighting back. Jeremy Halbreich is CEO of AIM Media, which owns small and midsize newspapers including the Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio, where I served as publisher and editor until 2018. Halbreich is among the publishers of 125 newspapers in 11 states who filed lawsuits in April against Google and Facebook. When the suits were announced, Halbreich said, “As found by recent investigations conducted by both federal and state agencies, Google and Facebook have monopolized the digital advertising market and restricted the monetization of local news by local news organizations.”

The investigations referenced by Halbreich centered on an alleged sweetheart deal between Google and Facebook that resulted in antitrust lawsuits filed by 10 state attorneys general in December. “The disclosure of the deal between the tech giants has renewed concerns about how the biggest technology companies band together to close off competition,” the New York Times reported. “The deals are often consequential, defining the winners and losers in various markets for technology services and products.”

The publishers’ lawsuits cite studies demonstrating how Big Tech’s tactics harmed local newspapers — advertising revenue plummeted from $49 billion in 2006 to $16.5 billion in 2017, industry jobs declined by 60 percent from 1990 to 2016, and about 20 percent of newspapers closed from 2004 to 2018 — with others operating as ghosts of their former selves.

Google and Facebook deny any wrongdoing, arguing that deals like the one between Facebook and Google did not harm competition and were common in digital advertising, according to the Times. In an effort to appease critics, they committed hundreds of millions of dollars to support news outlets globally. “But several media analysts and news business executives [said] that the funding — set to last three years — does not nearly compensate for the tens of billions of dollars publishers lost as the tech companies gobbled up the digital advertising market,” Reuters reported earlier this month.

While the lawsuits are adjudicated, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress — co-sponsored in the Senate by John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who aren’t often aligned — that would allow publishers to collectively negotiate terms with the Big Tech platforms.

Both the lawsuits and legislation have the support of News Media Alliance, which represents roughly 2,000 U.S. news organizations. Danielle Coffey, senior vice president and general counsel for NMA, told me the fight is similar to battles waged by the music industry for fair treatment by emerging platforms and negotiations of local TV stations with the cable giants.

Coffey pointed to Australia as a trailblazer in this fight. It recently passed laws, as detailed by the Verge, “requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets to pay for their content or face arbitration.” Facebook and Google initially pushed back, but seem to be acquiescing to the new reality.

Reining in the tech giants is overdue on a number of fronts. Their algorithm-driven manipulation of news feeds contributes to keeping Americans ensconced in their political bubbles. Their claim to be mere aggregators of information — and therefore exempt from the legal risks faced by traditional publishers — is belied by their increasing activism as editors and censors.

Local communities suffer without a Fourth Estate watchdog keeping tabs on tax dollars, holding public officials accountable and highlighting the achievements of students and civic organizations. Countless communities have lost their newspapers already, and others hang by a thread. “The freedom of the press is not at stake,” the publishers’ lawsuits presciently note. “The press itself is at stake.”

The Times-Gazette, my old stomping ground, is doing better than some. But even there, the staff has been reduced to seven — that’s advertising, circulation and the newsroom combined. Earlier this year, their offices had grown so sparsely occupied that everyone was squeezed into a corner of the building to save money on the lease while the landlord seeks a second tenant.

Around the same time, Google announced plans to spend more than $7 billion on real estate to expand offices and data centers across 19 states. Apparently, content has value, for some.

Read more:

Hugh Hewitt: Here is the best way for the GOP to go about regulating Big Tech

The Post’s View: The plans need work, but it’s good Congress is finally bringing substance to the Big Tech debate

Greg Sargent: A shocking exposé of superrich people’s tax bills should prompt a big rethink

George F. Will: Clarence Thomas is right. Big Tech will have its day in court, eventually.