Opinion: To Save Journalism, Break Up Silicon Valley

Donald Trump makes no secret of his hatred for journalists, but his administration's investigation into the power of Big Tech is long overdue.

The news business, as we all know, is in a time of crisis. But sometimes aid comes from unexpected places, and last week the industry may have gotten a helping hand from a particularly unexpected place: the Trump administration, which is launching a sweeping investigation into Big Tech’s stranglehold over the online economy.

Given Trump’s hostility toward us — and his penchant for stoking violent public sentiment toward news outlets and individual reporters — it’s unlikely that saving the news business is on the mind of Attorney General Bill Barr or Federal Trade Commission investigators as they launch their probes into Google, Facebook, and other tech companies.

But with revenues still shrinking and mass layoffs decimating our industry’s workforce, we need all the help we can get. If these investigations break up Big Tech’s monopolistic control over online advertising, it’ll be a huge benefit to journalists not just in the US but around the world.

The assist comes not a moment too soon. At a time when having vibrant, independent news outlets at all levels of society has become so critical, our industry is suffering massive losses — not because of the quality of our work or the lack of an audience, but because revenue is disappearing. Even small newsrooms are becoming unsustainable.

The numbers are staggering. In the year 2000, when the internet was still relatively new, traditional news publishers made an estimated $48.7 billion in advertising revenue, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. By 2017, total advertising revenue collapsed to $16.5 billion, a 67% reduction. The numbers for 2018 were even more grim, with a revenue decline of more than $2 billion. The economic sustainability of the journalism industry is in real doubt.

In my adopted home of New Orleans, the 182-year-old Times-Picayune ceased to exist at the end of June. As part of a buyout by the Advocate, a rival paper, the name will live on as part of the Advocate Times-Picayune. It's a largely symbolic gesture, and cold comfort to the 65 reporters and editors who were laid off.

That same day, the Youngstown Vindicator also announced it was shutting down completely by August — just days after the paper had celebrated its 150th birthday. Managing Editor Mark Brown blamed the paper’s death, in part, on the chokehold digital robber barons like Google and Facebook have on advertising revenue that for years had been “driving down the price of the ads and controlling the inventory.”

Ten days later, the Chicago Defender, one of the oldest-running black newspapers in the country, announced that after more than a century, it would stop printing a paper. Instead it will focus its resources on the digital market in an “effort to make sure that the Defender has another 100 years,” chief executive Hiram Jackson told the New York Times.

All told, 15,500 media professionals lost their jobs in 2018, and the slashing is continuing though this year, with more than 3,000 reporters, editors, and other staff being laid off or given buyouts since the beginning of January. That was when I and hundreds of others were given our pink slips at my former employer, BuzzFeed.

I spent more than 20 years covering Congress, the White House, federal agencies, and federal courts at various publications before being laid off. News of the impending cuts came not through management but in a tweet from the Wall Street Journal. In our news division, the entire national affairs desk was cut, along with the national security desk and all but one member of the LGBTQ desk. It was a surreal experience.

The reason was simple: While those teams coproduced some of the biggest stories BuzzFeed News ever covered, there simply wasn’t enough money to go around. And the sorts of stories these desks produced, which led to changes in state and federal law and the jailing of criminals, cost money — money that is increasingly gobbled up by Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Like the railroad, coal, and steel magnates of old, these companies have used their size and influence to create de facto monopolies over online advertising, controlling the system from end to end and reaping the vast majority of the profits for themselves.

If history is any guide, powerful, wealthy men won’t give up that sort of control willingly. One has only to look at Facebook’s slow, inadequate response to the proliferation of fake news and Russian gaming of its system during the 2016 election to see it will put profits over the greater good.

Breaking up these companies, and their control over the online advertising marketplace, will undoubtedly be beneficial. It will make it possible for large and small news outlets alike to earn what they deserve from advertising on their sites, instead of seeing that money siphoned off by Silicon Valley. That, in turn, will mean more resources for journalists to do what they do best: inform their readers, expose corruption, speak for the least among us, and hold the powerful to account.

For those of us who work in the industry, talking or even writing about these issues is difficult. Traditional “church and state” separations between the business and editorial sides of outlets have served us well, ensuring that advertisers and owners don’t have a say in the stories.

But the threat these tech robber barons pose to our industry requires us to speak out, not just to stem the flow of layoffs but also for the communities we serve.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in New Orleans, where I now live. From Huey Long to Ray Nagin, corruption and abuse has a long, storied history in the politics of Louisiana. And local news outlets have served as watchdogs over the state and local governments for nearly two centuries, particularly at the Times-Picayune, which was the third-oldest paper in the country.

The news hole the paper’s closure creates cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to holding state and local officials to account: At least 71 Louisiana politicians have been convicted of crimes since 1980. One of them was St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed, who was convicted in 2016 on federal fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion charges after an investigation by the Times-Picayune. Reed was part of a long-running feature that exposed corruption among public officials and won four national journalism awards.

But in a world where news outlets make their money from advertising, great reporting and prestigious awards just aren’t enough for many local news outlets.

Just consider the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Its reporters exposed the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, making national news and winning the Pulitzer Prize in the process. That same year, the paper went from a daily to publishing only three times a week, and fired 70 members of its staff.

John Stanton is a cofounder of the Save Journalism Project.

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