Our View: Level playing field for local news — before it’s too late

From the editorial: "Big-tech online platforms like Facebook and Twitter are pilfering and then profiting off the hard work of local journalists, ... shamelessly just (taking) and (republishing) local news content."

Dave Whamond/Cagle Cartoons

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the daughter of a legendary Minnesota newspaperman, is attempting once again to give a fighting chance to local journalism — to those dedicated professionals from local news outlets like the News Tribune out monitoring and covering public safety, city councils, school boards, and other public matters, to those tenacious watchdogs bravely reporting how our local tax dollars are spent and more.

The problem is that — for years now and with great damage being done to local journalism — big-tech online platforms like Facebook and Twitter are pilfering and then profiting off the hard work of local journalists. They’re continuing to shamelessly just take and republish local news content without fair compensation to local news outlets. Just as bad, they’re also stealing away the local advertising that supports newspapers and other media outlets, allowing them to stay in business.

Klobuchar’s Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, reintroduced in late March, promises to help — before it’s too late for the local news we all depend on and desperately need.

The federal legislation would allow local news outlets to negotiate together for fairer compensation from the large digital platforms. It would do so by creating a limited safe harbor from antitrust laws for eligible journalism providers. As Editor and Publisher (E&P) reported on April 3, the legislation also would require the large digital platforms to negotiate in good faith.

This is the fourth attempt for the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Last year it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 15-7 vote. It continues to enjoy broad bipartisan support, including Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana who reintroduced the measure alongside Klobuchar.


“As the daughter of a newspaperman, I understand firsthand the vital role that a free press plays in strengthening our democracy,” Klobuchar said in a recent statement. “But local news is facing an existential crisis, from ad revenues plummeting and newsrooms across the country closing to artificial intelligence tools taking content. To preserve strong, independent journalism, news organizations must be able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that dominate news distribution and digital advertising.”

The fallout from Google's and Facebook's practices on local newsrooms is disturbing to anyone who values reliable information. An estimated 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020, according to WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston. In addition, approximately 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country without any local news coverage at all. That means no one reporting on local elected leaders and their decisions that impact us where we live. One recent “news desert” is Warroad, Minnesota, which was featured April 3 by Forum Communications.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act promises to turn a troubling tide. “This bill supports the little guy,” Kennedy said, according to E&P.

The bill is far from the first legislative attempt to help level the playing field for the critical work done by local journalists. The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act was proposed to limit large online platforms' participation in the digital-advertising process rather than allowing them to continue to monopolize entire transactions. And the Local Journalism Sustainability Act was proposed to create tax credits for print or digital local newspaper publishers who employ and hire local journalists. The credits were meant to help decelerate newsroom layoffs.

"These big-tech companies are not friends to journalism," Klobuchar testified in 2020 before a Senate judiciary subcommittee. "They are raking in ad dollars while taking news content, feeding it to their users, and refusing to offer fair compensation. And they're making money on consumers' backs by using the content produced by news outlets to suck up as much data about each reader as they can. …

“We need to recognize that what separates the news from the vast majority of our other industries is its crucial role in our democratic system of government,” Klobuchar further testified. “That's why our Founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. So when the exercise of monopoly power results in a market failure in our news industry, it's critically important for our democracy that we act."

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would be a good first step. This year, finally, with a goal of preserving the vibrant and independent press that's so critical to the success and future of our nation and democracy, bipartisan support needs to translate into passage — before it's too late.

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