Minnesota Opinion: Ensure fairness for the future of local news
From the editorial: "The current system for digital advertising is hardly a level playing field — to the disadvantage and downfall of local news sources. Sen. (Mike) Lee went so far as to call the current system 'broken'."
Local journalists like the dedicated professionals at the (West Central Tribune, the Duluth ) News Tribune (and others) are the ones monitoring how city councils, school boards, and other public bodies spend public dollars. They report on how law enforcement treats local citizens and how road repairs, the awarding of public contracts, and so much more affect all of us.
It's work that's critically important.
Responsible newsgathering is also expensive.
But right now, the revenue needed to support the work isn't going to the hardworking local reporters or their newspapers or other news outlets like it should be. Instead, tech giants like Facebook and Google are pilfering away digital-advertising dollars — while also taking and republishing local news content without compensation.
To help restore and protect fair competition in digital advertising — so the local news we depend on can survive alongside the online giants rather than being choked out by them — U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has joined fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas in introducing the Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act . The legislation would limit large online platforms’ participation in the digital-advertising process rather than allowing them to continue to monopolize entire transactions.
“For too long, Google and Facebook have dominated the digital-advertising marketplace at the expense of advertisers, publishers, and consumers,” Sen. Klobuchar said in a statement last week from Sen. Lee’s office. “It is past time for a transparent ad technology industry where the best interests of customers are prioritized and companies of all sizes are able to compete. This legislation will put rules in place to do just that, restoring and protecting competition in digital advertising to create a more even playing field that will promote fairness and innovation moving forward.”
The current system for digital advertising is hardly a level playing field — to the disadvantage and downfall of local news sources. Sen. Lee went so far as to call the current system “broken.”
“Online advertising is … suffering under the thumb of trillion-dollar tech companies,” Lee said in the statement. “Companies like Google and Facebook have been able to exploit their unprecedented troves of detailed user data to obtain vice grip-like control over digital advertising, amassing power on every side of the market and using it to block competition and take advantage of their customers.”
This isn’t the first time Sen. Klobuchar has stood up for local newspapers and local news outlets in the face of unfair, anti-competitive practices from Big Tech.
She advocated for allowing local news publishers and broadcasters to band together to negotiate content-sharing deals with the digital platforms, recognizing that there’s no way individual newspapers and local news outlets can wield enough economic heft on their own. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would waive antitrust laws so publishers can join together to attempt to recoup and recapture lost subscription and advertising dollars.
Klobuchar also supported the federally proposed Local Journalism Sustainability Act to create tax credits for print or digital local newspaper publishers who employ and hire local journalists. The credits would help decelerate newsroom layoffs.
"These big-tech companies are not friends to journalism," Klobuchar testified last summer before a Senate judiciary subcommittee on competition, antitrust, and consumer rights, as they relate to journalism. "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," testified Klobuchar, the daughter of a newspaper columnist. "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 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, as WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston, reported last summer. 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 to watchdog local elected leaders and their decisions that impact us where we live.
Legislation like the Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act promises to help. Like other proposals, its aim is ensuring the vibrant and independent press that’s so critical to the success and future of our nation and democracy.
This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of the Duluth News Tribune.