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Creating a news-media cartel would hurt local news

January 22, 2020 , , , , , ,
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This piece was originally published in The Seattle Times. You can view it here on seattletimes.com.

Local newspapers are experiencing a steady decline in traditional print-advertising revenue as technology giants like Google and Facebook profit from the digital ads that support their massive information distribution platforms. It’s no wonder that the major media association has cried foul and called upon Congress to rectify an unfair imbalance in advertising revenue flowing to digital platforms instead of newspapers.

Unfortunately, the publishers have proposed legislation that won’t work and may even be counterproductive to their goals, especially where local news is concerned. It’s true that the local press has been hit particularly hard by the rise of online platforms, leaving many towns with no local newspaper at all. A variety of economic factors are responsible for these changes in the news industry, many of them stemming from the industry’s slow adaptation to the digital era as consumers began getting more of their news online — which fundamentally altered the advertising market local media relied on for survival.

It is also clear that Facebook and Google have accumulated too much power through their respective platforms and associated services. Any antitrust violations should be challenged by state attorneys general, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, and we are heartened that investigations are underway.

But allowing the world’s largest media corporations to form a cartel under the guise of helping local journalism may jeopardize the very existence of local journalism. This antitrust exemption, which would enable massive publications to team up with other massive publications to negotiate better deals with Big Tech, effectively cements Big Media’s rule over local media, with large corporations like NewsCorp and Comcast/NBCUniversal taking the helm. Allowing a media cartel to collectively negotiate with, and serve as a counterweight to, online platforms like Facebook simply creates yet another powerful entity in the market that local media cannot control yet must rely on to exist.

It’s easy to see how large media outlets stand to grab the lion’s share of the benefits, as they would dominate the negotiations. Local media and rural journalists may quickly find themselves without a seat at the negotiating table, or they’ll simply be outmatched and outmuscled by Big Media — and their voices silenced.

Those not at the bargaining table — consumers, voters, journalists, freelance writers, bloggers and so on — will have very little say in negotiations between these two behemoths. Enabling a media cartel to operate free of antitrust law encourages large news corporations to do what’s in their best interest at the risk of harming others. It would lead to self-interested bargaining between two powerful parties, Big Media and Big Tech, at our expense.

To rub salt into the wound, there’s no guarantee that Big Media would invest its gains in improving news coverage or supporting local media and diverse media channels instead of launching stock buybacks or increasing executive salaries. Moreover, a new antitrust exemption is unlikely to actually work to promote a more viable press or bring small newspapers back from the brink. For example, powerful online platforms also distribute user-generated content they generally obtain for free. Even negotiating with a large group of news companies, a platform may still reject the group’s offer. This would be a terrible outcome, leaving citizens with less access to high-quality news than they have today.

The internet has changed advertising, as it has changed everything else. Yet that doesn’t mean local media is without hope. Rather than pass a law that fails to support local media, Congress should require dominant digital platforms to pay local journalists to fact-check information flowing over the internet. This would provide more revenue for local journalists to do what they do best while simultaneously providing consumers a quick reality check on the quality of what’s crossing their screens.

There are ways policymakers can promote a robust and diverse media landscape that helps local journalism thrive — and all without creating a media cartel that acts in its best interest at the expense of local media and the rest of us. In short, exempting media corporations from antitrust law just creates a Media Behemoth poised to behave anti-competitively as soon as the adults leave the room; it does virtually nothing to check the power of Big Tech.