The news industry is readying a lobbying push with a straightforward, but audacious request: Please let us collude against Google and Facebook.
The long-shot effort for collective media bargaining rights with tech platforms was raised by an industry trade group as an idea last year, but has since languished in Congress. With resentment against Big Tech at an all-time high in Washington and Democrats set to take control of the House, news executives are starting to believe they now have another shot.
Newspapers are running op-eds and media executives are lobbying their representatives as a new Congress takes shape. What they’re fighting for is permission, currently restricted by federal antitrust rules, to team up to negotiate the terms by which their content is distributed by Google and Facebook, among other demands surrounding things like customer data. While it can be head-spinning to navigate Trump’s Washington — particularly for a news business under a constant barrage of “fake news” attacks — the industry finally feels like it might have a playbook to get some results for their bottom line.
Months ago, newspaper executives took to Capitol Hill — and dozens of papers used their op-ed page bullhorn — to successfully lobby to overturn a Trump administration tariff on Canadian newsprint that was crippling US regional newspapers.
Now publishers are echoing that same strategy to rally behind the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. In March, Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline — the future chair of the antitrust subcommittee — introduced the antitrust “safe harbor” bill, putting the proposal front and center as tech leviathans now prepare to face what is sure to be a barrage of hearings about privacy, election interference, algorithmic changes, and more.
“This is really a crisis for small newspapers and small publications,” Cicilline said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “The reality is that they don’t have any ability to bargain and negotiate, because these two tech companies really set the terms.”
Like the Canadian newsprint push, the antitrust safe harbor effort has been organized by News Media Alliance, the major industry trade group that represents about 2,000 news outlets, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a host of regional papers (BuzzFeed is not a member).
In the weeks leading up to the midterms, some local news outlets, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and the Charleston Post and Courier, ran an op-ed written by NMA chief executive David Chavern, which called on lawmakers to support the bill. Other papers, like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, authored their own versions. (“Ohioans need to let their representatives know that preserving their hometown news is important to them. This bill would help do that.”)
It’s far from clear if the safe harbor law has a chance at generating much Republican support. Members of Trump’s party aren’t exactly eager to raise their hands as champions of the news media as the president routinely denigrates outlets as “fake news” or “enemies of the people.”
“There clearly is a problem with the administration’s rhetoric in particular impacting the willingness of Republicans to step forward and take any kind of leadership role here. That’s why the Democratic changeover in the House does help,” Chavern said. But he added that, for Republican lawmakers, aggression against the media often stops short of their own local media outlets. “They know if that goes away, that they do not know what is going to fill it,” he said.
“The misconception that Republican lawmakers have is that they look at the Washington Post and the New York Times and they think media has never been stronger. That doesn’t mean that the industry as a whole is in a recovery,” said Alex Skatell, an NMA board member and the founder of the Independent Journal Review, a site that has found an audience with young conservatives.
The stakes are particularly high for small local news outlets that have struggled as Facebook and Google eat up the online advertising market. Figures vary, but Facebook and Google (often referred to as “the duopoly”) will capture 56.8% of the digital advertising market in the US this year, down slightly from 58.5% last year, according to research firm eMarketer. The safe harbor law would lift antitrust restrictions for news outlets for four years so that they could negotiate with Facebook and Google, which are implicitly but not directly named in the proposed legislation.
“The economic inequity that’s been created threatens our ability to do the journalism,” said Terry Egger, the publisher of Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Cicilline said that he expected to conduct hearings about Facebook and Google’s impact on the news business once the Democrats take control. “I think there is growing understanding of the implications of what’s happening in the news sector and a sense of urgency,” he said.
“We want to help news publishers succeed as they transition to digital,” a Google spokesperson said. “In recent years we’ve built numerous specialized products and technologies, developed specifically to help distribute, fund, and support newspapers. This is a top priority and the launch of the Google News Initiative underlines our deep commitment to continue building strong partnerships with publishers.”
Facebook declined to comment for this story, but when the safe harbor initiative was announced last year, the company similarly stressed that it is seeking to work with news companies through various publisher initiatives.
Growing calls from publishers (not to mention lawmakers) to regulate Big Tech, however, have caught Silicon Valley’s attention. Inside the Facebook government policy team, for instance, the view is that the safe harbor bill is an anticompetitive attempt from business rivals to skirt the rules — the kind of maneuvering antitrust laws are meant to curb.
News companies are barred from negotiating together without an exemption, or they could face steep penalties. In 2012, the Justice Department went after large book publishing houses for their effort to team up with Apple to fix e-book prices against the growing power of Amazon.
News publishers believe they deserve to have the antitrust rule temporarily lifted. “The spirit of the law was to prevent the consolidation of influence over the information that reaches us. It’s laughable it hasn’t been updated to reflect where we are today,” Skatell said.
“I’m seeing more and more news organizations speaking out because of their concern of the global and local news dynamic,” said Jason Kint, CEO of publisher trade group Digital Content Next (BuzzFeed is not a member). “The digital model is certainly broken right now in how it favors a couple of companies and requires nontraditional means to shift the industry forward.”
That so many news outlets would use their opinion pages to advocate for their own businesses — perhaps an ethically uncomfortable move for some news executives — reflects just how under threat the industry feels. Long gone are the days when the news business was fabulously lucrative, the kind of sector that turned families into dynasties.
Still, news outlets directing their editorial muscle to push for governmental policies that benefit the wider industry seems unsavory in a business that often ties itself into knots worrying about conflicts of interest. It’s one thing for a newspaper op-ed page to champion the First Amendment, but is it inappropriate for it to advocate in print against its business rivals?
Egger said that it’s fine for newspapers to argue for themselves to readers — and that it doesn’t mean their editorial independence is now for sale. “Those lines are still very clear,” he said. “There’s no quid pro quo.”
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said he doesn’t believe op-ed pages should be used as a self-interested business weapon. “That’s not necessarily in the interest of the fair-minded reader,” he said. But, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that the industry can’t lobby,” he added. “That’s the American way. If you don’t lobby, you’re at a disadvantage and you’re exempting yourself from the rules of the game — but the game isn’t going to recognize that.”