Opinion: Needed legislation for journalism’s future

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S OPINION

This nation’s founders deemed the news business so important an underpinning of democracy that they included protection of it in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Some 230 years later, the necessity of a robust news reporting industry to a free society is as important as ever. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editor Kevin Riley has called our work “an irreplaceable public service.”

In recognition of that importance, Americans relentlessly and routinely seek out accurate news and information to help them better live their lives – and best inform the decisions and actions they undertake as citizens and community members.

According to industry group the News Media Alliance, online traffic to the top 50 news sites is up 39% since 2014. The group says news organizations reach about 136 million U.S. adults each week.

It might seem surprising then that the news industry has struggled financially for years. Nationally, the alliance says newspaper circulation is down 48% since 2002.

The rise of the Internet age has made it much harder for news providers to compete financially. In large part, that’s because digital giants such as Google and Facebook are distributing the news industry’s journalism product on a massive scale while paying far too little for its use.

The math essentially works like this: For every dollar earned from digital advertising, the digital mega-platforms take as much as 70 cents. That leaves publishers working hard to do original news reporting with the remaining 30 cents on a dollar. That can become even less once an “ad-tech tax” is subtracted.

The result of this revenue squeeze has been the layoffs of thousands of dedicated journalists nationwide in recent years. Local newspapers in some communities have even closed as dollars that had supported their work disappeared.

As the number of reporters keeping watch on your behalf over government and other entities has shrunk, it’s created a vacuum that’s enabled the rise of misinformation. Many of us recognize the damage that’s causing to the American way of democracy whose strength we had been lulled into thinking was unassailable.

The alliance comprised of many of the news organizations that work for you has proposed a path toward building a sustainable financial model for journalism.

A bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers is sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. It was the subject of a U.S. Senate committee hearing this week.

Its premise is this, as explained by News Media Alliance President and CEO David Chavern in a 2020 opinion piece: “It is simply not possible for any individual news publisher to change the basic terms offered by the online behemoths. They are simply much too big and much too influential.” His is a common-sense point, given the ubiquity of social media and online search brands in our daily lives.

The JCPA proposes a solution that would provide “power in numbers” as Chavern wrote. It would do so by creating an antitrust “safe harbor,” limited in time and scope, for struggling news organizations.

The bill calls for a four-year window that would allow news publishers to collectively negotiate with Facebook and Google for fair compensation for the platforms’ use of news content. The alliance says the JCPA would “help develop pro-competitive, business-led solutions that would flow subscription and advertising dollars back to publishers and help to protect quality news and encourage competition.”

The group of news publishers goes on to explain that “market-based legislation is the only appropriate way to correct the competitive imbalance that our existing antitrust laws are unable to address.”

Many of you reading this are aware of the importance of robust journalistic work, thanks in good part to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Press On” information campaign we began in 2021. Press On showcases our important duties – and the journalists who work hard to keep you informed about critical issues affecting our lives, such as the impact of COVID-19 or the steep rise in violent crime.

As editor Riley wrote at the launch of Press On, “Journalism is a fundamentally human endeavor. That is what sets us apart from the automated, repetitive news cycles that seem to have taken over. Across all our products, readers can expect to consistently find the extensive in-depth reporting of our journalists — the kind of hard work that only real journalists can do.”

Journalism can only achieve this important mission if the enterprises supporting this work are financially healthy. A big step toward helping ensure this outcome would be for Congress – and Georgia’s congressional delegation – to vote to pass the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. The time for that is now – and passage should come without further delay.

Given good journalism’s role as an underpinning of the American way of representative democracy, we have much to lose as a free society if this bill does not quickly make its way into law.

The Editorial Board.