Can Journalism Be Saved From the Tech Giants?

A leading House Democrat has a plan.

This was a bad week for journalism, in a depressingly familiar way.

On Monday, the investment firm that controls the newspaper publisher GateHouse Media bought Gannett, another publishing giant, which runs the USA Today network. Both companies own hundreds of newspapers around the country, and had already instituted layoffs this year. Meanwhile, public filings indicate that cost cutting will continue to be a priority, according to the Washington Post.

Then, on Wednesday, Pacific Standard, an online magazine focusing on social and environmental justice, announced abruptly that it would be shutting down. The same day, Governing, which covers state and local policy, said in a statement that it would be closing because it had proven “unsustainable as a business in today’s media environment.”

It’s part of a much larger trend: with Facebook and Google sucking up ever-increasing shares of ad revenue, publications are finding it harder and harder to stay financially viable.

One member of Congress thinks he has a solution. This spring, Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline proposed the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, a bill that would allow news publishers to collectively bargain with giant tech companies and negotiate the terms under which their content is republished.

It’s part of Cicilline’s broader effort to counter the negative effects of market consolidation. As chair of the House’s antitrust subcommittee, he has emerged as one of the most prominent critics in Washington of tech giants and monopoly power. This year, he’s leading a congressional investigation into Big Tech, summoning executives to Capitol Hill and grilling them on whether they squash competitors. I spoke with him this week about local journalism, the increasing popularity of reviving antitrust, and whether he thinks President Trump will be an ally—or an obstacle—in the effort.

This conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity

GG: I’d like to start by talking about the topic of your first hearing in the antitrust investigations, which was the impact on local journalism. Why did you choose to start with that subject?

DC: I think this is one of the areas where the market dominance of these large technology platforms is having a really serious and negative impact on our democracy. This is not just about their market dominance resulting in some impact on the sale of widgets, but this is really about the ability of citizens of this country to access trustworthy, reliable, local news, and a free and diverse press—particularly a local press—is really essential to the proper functioning of our democracy.

GG: You proposed a bill in the spring that would allow news publications to collectively bargain with online platforms like Facebook and Google that republish their content. What motivated you to write that bill?

DC: When you look at what’s happening in the marketplace, you see that the vast majority of American people access their news through two large platforms, Facebook and Google. And Facebook and Google have amassed enormous revenue from online advertising—$60 billion last year, the majority of all online revenue. At the very same time, despite [publications’] record levels of online readership, there’s been a steep decline in revenues as a result of the rise of these two large technology giants. And you’re seeing all across the country the impact on newsrooms where people are being laid off, newspapers are closing, and in a lot of ways, local journalism is on life support. So, the legislation I’ve proposed, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, provides an interim step to stabilize the marketplace by allowing producers of content online and small newspapers to collectively negotiate with the two large technology platforms.

GG: So, were this bill to pass, what are some specific measures that you could see news organizations pushing for in their negotiations?

DC: Well, I’ll leave it up to them to negotiate, but I think there’s no doubt they will attempt to negotiate terms that ensure that the branding and attribution—that is, when a newspaper has invested significantly in their brand because of high-quality and accurate journalism, then I think they want to be sure that that brand is protected. So, my guess is they would negotiate about attribution and branding, that they would negotiate about making certain that these platforms are not engaged in discriminatory conduct which favors their own publications.

GG: Antitrust seems to be having a resurgence of popularity in the past year or couple of years. It’s now a much more frequent topic of debate in national politics, but we obviously had huge companies before these past couple of years. Why do you think this subject is gaining traction now?

DC: I think we’re beginning to see the consequences of this enormous market concentration: in significant data breaches, in the widespread use of false information on the internet, the consequences of the interference in the American presidential election, the work by Cambridge Analytica. At least in the Democratic Party, we’ve very much focused on developing an economic agenda that really speaks to the anxieties of the American people, the economic anxieties, and focuses on getting the economy to work for everyone, raising family incomes, and being sure that we’re reducing the cost of people’s lives. The kind of mega-mergers and market concentration that we’re seeing is part of the reason that the economy isn’t working for everyone. I think people have just really begun to understand that our failure to be aggressive in antitrust enforcement has contributed to very substantial market concentration and some of the worst income inequality in our country’s history.

GG: For about the past 40 years, much of the discussion about why monopolies are bad—including antitrust legal decisions—has focused on consumer prices, the logic being that monopoly power is bad because it results in higher prices for consumers. But during the antitrust committee hearing that you had a couple of weeks ago, with lawyers from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, I noticed that very few of your questions had to do with impact on consumer prices. Is that a deliberate pivot?

DC: In the age in which attention is a commodity, and where your attention is monetized for ad revenue, the idea that focusing on, “Well, Facebook and Google are free”—but they’re not actually free. You’re giving them your attention, which is really the coin of the realm. Even in the context where it feels like the service is free, antitrust principles are important. In some ways even more important, because it may feel like “Oh, what’s the big deal, this is all free,” but if in fact they are crushing competitors by excluding them or acquiring them so that there’s no real competition, that has a very adverse impact on innovation. We want to make sure that the next Facebook, or the next Amazon, or the next Google has the ability to be successful.

So, this idea of really seriously impacting innovation is significant. If they are favoring their own products and services while giving you the impression that the search is done in some kind of neutral way, that’s also harmful to the consumer. I think the reason that you probably didn’t hear a lot about consumer prices is that there’s a recognition that that factor alone is insufficient to appreciate the dangers of monopolies and a lack of competition in the 21st century.

GG: Do you think your Republican colleagues agree that we have a monopoly problem?

DC: Yes. I don’t know if they’ll agree with every solution, but I think this is a bipartisan investigation, and I think my Republican colleagues have at least expressed a willingness to be part of the investigation, and help identify some solutions.

GG: So, two weeks or so ago, President Trump said that the government “should be suing Google and Facebook” and then said, “perhaps we will.” The Justice Department also recently opened an antitrust review of tech companies. Do you think President Trump will be an ally in the committee’s work?

DC: Unclear. You know, I don’t take the President at his word, to be very honest. I think this administration has not been effective at all in taking on the question of the technology giants and the deep concentration of market power in the technology platforms, or in monopolies generally. It’s an administration that seems to favor the very wealthy and big corporate interests, so I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that the president is going to be on the side of consumers and workers in the antitrust work and the work for our committee, but we’ll see.

GG: Have you at all been in touch with the president about the committee’s work?

DC: No.

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Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is an associate editor at the Washington Monthly.