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Opinion: Congress Should Support Journalism Against Big Tech

Facebook and Google publish local news articles, sell ads off them and pocket the vast majority of the profit, giving local news outlets little in return, which pushes readership online as profits erode.

(TNS) — Like other businesses, your local news outlets battle every day to convince customers we're worth the money.

On one side are those who'd like to read us but their generation never developed the daily newspaper habit. They'll see a link to one of our articles that a friend posted on Facebook and they're furious when they can't open it without paying. That's a battle we think we can win. We let them read enough free samples that we hope to convince them of the value a digital subscription would bring to their lives.

But there's a second battle, an existential one that threatens our digital business model. In this case we're not even allowed to fight back, as the law is written, at least not in a meaningful way. That's our battle against the two social media behemoths, Facebook and Google.

Facebook and Google publish our articles, sell ads off them and pocket the vast majority of the profit. They give us little in return. Because of this, as newspaper readers turn to the web for news and our ability to sell newspaper ads erodes, we depend more heavily on selling digital ads but find ourselves squeezed.

With one hand the two corporate giants help us by distributing our news. With the other they siphon so much of the ad revenue we generate that we can barely survive.

It's killing us. Nationwide in the last two years, 300 publications closed, with more than 6,000 journalists axed.

Eighty-four Florida newspapers have died since 2004, and newspaper circulation is down 51%. Twenty-two Florida counties have only one local news outlet and five have none.

Palm Beach County, its population bigger than that of 11 states, used to have three major newspapers duking it out for scoops. Today there’s The Palm Beach Post and its sister paper, the Palm Beach Daily News.

And like every other news company, the Post and Daily News has lost reporters to buyouts and layoffs. Those who remain stick with it because they believe in the mission, but for how long?

The solution to the social media squeeze is not the gradual cultural change we seek from our print readers and online users. It's immediate regulatory push-back against the worst instincts of Facebook and Google.

News organizations need to put up a united front to negotiate a better, more sustainable deal from the tech giants. But, sad irony, to do so we likely would run afoul of anti-trust laws. We need Congress to pause those restrictions.

Gannett and other major chains that own the majority of U.S. newspapers are by no means small organizations. That's by necessity, as most local newspaper outlets these days can only survive by sharing resources under the umbrella of a chain, benefiting from efficiencies of scale. Still, our size pales in comparison to the tech duopoly that has cornered the market on digital ad sales, and which sets the rules of the game to its unrestrained advantage.

And in addition to us, hundreds of TV and radio stations, smaller newspapers and independent news producers have no hope of getting a deal on their own. So they are desperately cutting, working themselves to the bone but still, going dark one by one. Each loss breaks our hearts. We stand in solidarity with them. Though we compete, we share the mission of getting our readers accurate, timely, thoughtful information.

As of 2018, Google and Facebook had nearly four times the revenue of all legacy U.S. news media combined. The two tech companies attracted 80% of digital ad spending and 45% of all ad spending in the U.S.

It’s analogous to how Napster and file-sharing threatened the record industry in the early 2000s. Until that industry spoke with one voice, all the labels uniting to tell the public that the music was being stolen and the artists wouldn't be able to keep going if it continued, the bleeding went on.

For the sake of fairness, our members of Congress — Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel and Brian Mast — and Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, should support the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Also known as the "Safe Harbor Bill," the legislation would pause anti-trust restrictions for four years to let publishers unite to negotiate with Facebook and Google for fair compensation for news content.

Don’t shed a tear for the town criers. We know we’re as subject to changing market forces as anyone. But with market distortions threatening the life blood of local news, we need our hands untied to fight for ourselves.

© 2021 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.