Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, testifies before the House Judiciary Antitrust subcommittee hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power" on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Associated Press photo/Cliff Owen)
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion: Testifying for local journalism

It came via email.

“Mr. Riley, greetings. … The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law will hold a hearing on the topic of journalism and online platforms. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act will be a central focus of the hearing. Would you be willing and able to serve as a witness at the hearing? If so, that would be terrific.”

Let’s just say, you don’t get that kind of invitation every day.

For a moment, I thought it might be a prank. But the sender checked out; he’s a lawyer who works for the U.S. House of Representatives.

I called to confirm this was for real. And, though a bit hesitant, I agreed to testify.

Journalists usually report on what Congress does; we’re not comfortable participating.

So, let me explain why I was invited, and what the hearing was about — and how that changed between the time I was invited and when I testified.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which we’ve written about before, would allow newspapers to negotiate as a group with the large technology companies — Facebook, Google and others. It would create a “safe harbor” from antitrust laws so that newspapers can collectively work out agreements for use of our content.

A company such as Facebook can publish, display and promote newspaper stories as it wants with no input from — or payment to — a newspaper. Newspapers have said negotiating with these large companies as individual entities is impractical and unfair, given their dominance.

The subcommittee, I was told, wanted my perspective on how the large technology companies impact local news operations and coverage.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, is one of the sponsors of the bill, along with Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Cicilline is also the chairman of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law; he would run the hearing.

You may be thinking what I was: This will be interesting and fun. I can spend a day in Washington, let these politicians know what I think, and that will be that.

It’s not nearly so simple, given the demands of the process, and the volatility of politics in the nation’s capital.

The process officially began with a letter, on U.S. House of Representatives stationery, that formally invited me to be a witness. It was signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. I admit I’ve saved that letter; it’s from one of the most prominent and polarizing members of Congress. As the Democratic leader of a committee that is investigating the president, I figure he’ll make some history, one way or another.

The letter explicitly states the requirements of testimony:

• Producing a written statement that can be as long as you want. It will be included as part of the official record of the hearing.

• Preparing an oral statement of five minutes or less. This, and your answers to questions, also will be part of the official record.

Also, the subcommittee wanted my resume and “Truth in Testimony Disclosure Form,” filled out and signed. All of this is part of the public record.

I thought writing my statement would be simple, and preparing oral testimony would be even easier. I have much experience at writing and public speaking, I thought to myself.

But there was something about visualizing myself at the witness table, behind a microphone, in a crowded hearing room with cameras clicking that daunted me.

I decided to leave the technical and legal explanations to the other witnesses. I wanted to highlight the AJC’s role in:

• Creating in-depth local journalism that lets the community know what’s really going.

• Protecting the public’s right to know.

• Documenting our communities’ moments, milestones and people.

I also planned to leave it to other witnesses to talk about the perils of Google and Facebook’s dominance. I would emphasize the importance of sustaining local journalism.

It was a sunny day when I arrived in Washington on an early flight. I spent the morning going over my notes, and stopping by the offices of Georgia delegation members who would be part of the hearing.

I arrived at the hearing room about a half-hour early, only to find out the hearing would start late. Members of the House were voting to go to court to enforce some subpoenas issued to the Trump administration, causing the delay.

Room 2141 in the Rayburn House Office Building was quiet. A few people milled about, and some journalists were setting up cameras and microphones.

But that changed quickly.

Interest in the hearing had increased dramatically in the days just before. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department had announced plans to investigate the big technology companies. Suddenly, this hearing, titled “Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 1: The Free and Diverse Press,” was a big deal. In a short time, the room was full.

I took a seat behind the placard displaying my name. I would be the last of six witnesses to testify.

That was a bit of a relief, since I wasn’t sure whether the microphone in front of me was turned on, or if I needed to push the button first. (You have to turn it on before you speak, I discovered by watching others.)

I shifted and positioned in my chair, considering how I’d look to the remote-controlled camera set up right in front of the witness table. After all, I’d worn an orange tie — my wife’s favorite color — and I wanted to make sure she could see it.

Cicilline banged his gavel to call the hearing to order. I raised my right hand as he administered the oath.

Cicilline introduced all of the witnesses, except me, before they gave their five-minute statements.

Collins introduced me — noting that he had sought information beyond my resume from one of our reporters, Greg Bluestein.

It was a gracious introduction, but the change in routine rattled me.

I got a lot of advice before the hearing, tips like this: I should address the chairman and ranking member by name and thank them and the committee for the invitation.

I was also counseled to not be distracted by members coming and going. One of them might get up and leave while a witness is talking, as they tend to other duties. In fact, I don’t think all members of the subcommittee were ever there at the same time.

I began my statement.

I hoped I didn’t sound as nervous as I felt. My confidence grew as I went, and I got to my conclusion without stumbling:

“We should be worried about losing newspapers, the fountainheads within the local news ecosystem. It is worth considering stories that would go untold.”

In fact, those words were quoted in The New York Times.

The subcommittee members then asked us questions — sort of. What they really did was make long statements with a question at the end.

Several were directed at me. One of my answers:

“In what kind of world do you grow your audience, reach a bigger market and somehow face even greater financial challenges than you did before?” I said. “Something’s out of whack in that equation.”

As members of the committee nodded their heads, I knew I’d made my point.

Here's what I said in my testimony before Congress about local journalism 

Here's what I said in my testimony before Congress about local journalism.

Posted by Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor - Kevin Riley on Wednesday, June 12, 2019

> RELATED: Kevin Riley’s prepared testimony for the U.S. House subcommittee

> Read more about the hearing and the issues behind the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2019.

Free press matters close to home

> Find more about Kevin Riley on his AJC staff page and AJCEditor on Facebook.

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