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Editorial: Toward a News Media Alliance


Friday, February 09, 2018

In the era of “fake news,” “clickbait,” and partisan hysteria, it is salutary to recall, every now and again, the power of real journalism.

In fact, now is a better time to do so than most.

That’s because serial sexual predator Larry Nassar, who for years abused young gymnasts when he was acting as their doctor, has been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.

What brought about Nassar’s richly deserved, and long overdue, downfall? A thorough investigation by The Indianapolis Star.

It’s no secret that journalism is a beleaguered field these days. The rise of the internet knocked out the traditional pillar that sustained local newspapers: classified ads. And print circulation, another key source of revenue, has fallen as many people have gone online to get their news. This has put tremendous pressure on the industry.

But the most disturbing trend for the future of the field is that digital advertising is essentially a digital duopoly: Facebook and Google command 73 percent of digital ad revenue, estimates Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group. And that number grows just about every quarter.

The upshot? Newspapers (or indeed, just about anybody else with a news website) have not been able to make up for their falling print revenue with digital advertising.

Here, from a civics point of view, is the problem in a nutshell: The two internet giants don’t do the difficult — and expensive — work of journalism.

Reporting is an arduous undertaking, whether it takes place in the mountains of Afghanistan or at a desk, spending hours going through obscure public records. But Google and Facebook now harvest the vast majority of the advertising that is supposed to sustain that journalism. It’s essentially parasitism: newspapers and other journalistic enterprises do all the work, while Silicon Valley sucks out the profits.

This cannot go on forever without immense damage to the public.

Our system of self-government requires a robust journalistic apparatus to inform citizens of what is transpiring in their name and to keep public officials in check. That’s why a group of newspapers — about 2,000 of them — called the News Media Alliance wants Congress to grant a limited antitrust exemption to the industry. That way, newspapers could come together to negotiate new agreements with the likes of Facebook and Google.

This idea makes strong sense.

In reality, the thousands of newspapers across the country aren’t competing with one another. In the old days, that might have been the case; nearly every city in the United States had more than one newspaper, and they fought one another for market share. These days, the number of cities with more than one daily is minuscule. Newspapers have a vested interest in coming together to negotiate a better deal with the internet giants. Their true competitors are Facebook and Google, not the regional newspaper located thousands of miles away. And the newspapers need to extract better terms.

We’re only just beginning to wrap our heads around the massive effect the internet has had on the way that Americans consume information.

One thing is certain: Facebook and Google are essentially dominant. (They are responsible for roughly three quarters of referrals to news sites.)

It’s a tricky problem. But it’s a worrying one. The only thing worse than “fake news” is “no news.” And unless newspapers are able to get their hands on more of the revenue that their work is actually producing, that could be the future we face.

The Providence Journal