Journalism Won’t Be Saved a Link at a Time

Photo credit: Timothy Karr.

Last spring, just as the first surge in the COVID-19 pandemic was peaking, Amy Brothers was busy at The Denver Post covering the fallout across Colorado.

“I really loved my job,” Brothers tweeted. “Going out into our community and telling your stories, on your best days and your hardest always inspired me.”

But that came to an abrupt end one Friday in April. Without warning, Brothers’ bosses at The Post laid off the video journalist along with 12 other newsroom colleagues, all casualties of the plummeting ad spending that struck local-news operations across the country.

“The interesting thing about covering a pandemic is that it’s a national story, but also completely local,” Brothers later told me. “But with fewer resources, you have to choose between the number of articles you can report and the depth of those articles.”

In 2020, U.S. newsrooms lost more than 8,200 employees like Brothers. That’s a 10-percent annual drop according to Free Press’ preliminary analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The declines were most severe for print newsrooms, as the newspaper industry was already suffering from a longer-term structural shift that began more than two decades ago.

The slow-motion collapse of the U.S. news industry is a crisis that has long demanded a national response. Last week, lawmakers in Congress stepped in, introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), which seeks to make Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google pay U.S. news outlets and broadcasters for linking to their content. Sponsors of the U.S. bill believe it would “give hardworking local reporters and publishers the helping hand they need.”

It’s not clear how it would do that. Wedding an old-media business model to a new-media disinformation engine won’t foster a better future for journalists and the people they serve.

The U.S. bill is similar to Australia’s “bargaining code,” which forces large tech companies and Australian media outlets together to negotiate payments for links. Australian regulators hope the measure will reset the balance of power between tech platforms and the nation’s news industry. The U.S. version differs most significantly in that it upends long-standing antitrust restrictions so news outlets can collude with one another to exact payments from the tech platforms.

It’s no surprise that lobbyists working for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the National Association of Broadcasters are among the most vocal supporters of both the Australian and U.S. rules.

News Corp. has already leveraged the mere threat of new rules to secure a three-year deal with Google that would provide access to the publisher’s empire of news content in exchange for “significant payments” from the search giant.

The JCPA clearly makes media’s old guard very happy. It may line their pockets with some extra cash, but it does very little to address the crisis at the center of journalism: the breakdown of the business of news production.

The market-driven model that once helped sustain public-interest news doesn’t function in a world where attention is the main commodity. MIT researchers have found that one of the most effective ways to hold people’s attention online is by featuring content that puts sensationalism before the facts, and that reinforces existing beliefs even when they’re inaccurate. As such, platforms have a built-in market incentive to engage users with “low-value” content that keeps eyes glued to the screen — and not the sort of news reporting that benefits the civic health of our communities.

No amount of tinkering with these mechanics can fix that. While the JCPA encourages collusion among news-industry giants, there’s little evidence that any of the money generated through negotiations with Big Tech would go to putting reporters back on local beats where they’re needed most — let alone to fill in the news deserts that are spreading across the country.

Breaking the bundle
The public-interest contract underlying the old-news model involved attracting readers to content that, at its best, helped them stay better informed and engaged. Economists refer to the impact of such journalism as a “positive externality,” or a transaction whose benefit to society as a whole is greater than the benefit to those who create the content and the readers who pay for it.

For decades, city newspapers had cornered the market on mass-distributed and timely bundles of news and information. If you wanted to read the box scores of last night’s baseball games, pick up the morning edition. If you wanted an update on a municipal-ballot initiative, flip to the local-news section. Weather and movie listings were often found in the back, and so on. The variety of content that dailies offered drew large readerships because they were the only game in town, and advertisers knew it.

The internet era dismantled all of that. Traditional news outlets could no longer convince advertisers that their printed bundles were the best way to reach a desired audience with specific information. As advertising revenues evaporated, so did outlets’ ability to field reporters and serve their communities.

The advertising economy revolved around a new center: the algorithmically targeted placements offered by the likes of Facebook and Google. Their technology proved a far more economical way for advertisers to put products (or ideas) before those people most likely to buy (or support) them.

But journalism has gotten lost in the exchange: These digital-advertising platforms don’t need to employ reporters or bundle news content to reach their intended audiences. The latest numbers reflect this shift: eMarketer projects that global ad-spending will top $695 billion in 2021, and that more than 56 percent of that will be payments to online advertisers that typically don’t produce news content.

With very few exceptions, the internet broke the traditional news model, but so did the demands of the marketplace. Many of the media industry’s worst wounds were self-inflicted. Decades of consolidation burdened conglomerates with massive debts that their media executives chose to service — not by cutting their own salaries and benefits but by laying off droves of journalists and editors.

And while readers can still access much of the content produced by local-news outlets, they often get there via the internet’s dominant platforms — creating an unhealthy dependency that the Australian and U.S measures only make worse: Rewarding the content that generates the most “engagement” — as defined by Facebook — naturally influences the type of content that is created, shared and, under these new rules, rewarded.

In short, a business built on such attention metrics loads the news cycle with stories that scream the loudest at the expense of accuracy and depth. Less measurable outcomes, like whether an article inspires a person to get involved in their community or speak out against an injustice, aren’t part of the platforms’ calculus for promoting stories.

It’s a system that rewards extremes, the New York Times’ David Streitfeld wrote in 2017: “Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.”

Frankenstein’s monster vs. noncommercial news
If news outlets are to survive over the long term, it won’t be because we’ve grafted their operations to a digital enterprise that’s more efficient at connecting advertisers to consumers. Journalism is far too important to the survival of democracies to be dependent on platforms that profit from the spread of content that undermines voter rights, amplifies election disinformation and incites racist violence.

The news model that existed throughout the 20th century can’t be jolted back to life to thrive in a 21st-century digital economy. The changes contemplated by both the Australian and U.S. proposals won’t revive the business that once sustained news production. Nor should they.

Congress would better spend its time focusing on ways to foster journalism as a public good. This is best done by allocating public funds to support innovations in noncommercial media.

Free Press believes a sound approach to creating a more diverse and thriving news sector can be achieved by imposing a tax on online advertising. The resulting revenue would be placed in a Public Interest Media Endowment and used to fund the kinds of local, independent and noncommercial news and information that are missing from too many U.S. communities.

For example, a 2-percent ad tax on 2020 U.S. advertising revenues of the top-10 online platforms would yield more than $2 billion for the endowment. As the platform giants’ share of the digital-advertising space increases, so would their obligation to the endowment.

Other sources of funding for the endowment could come by using a portion of the multibillion-dollar proceeds from recent government sales of private access to the public airwaves. The 2020–2021 auction of C-band spectrum has already netted federal coffers some $81 billion. Rather than simply funneling this massive sum into the U.S. Treasury to reduce the federal deficit or purchase a squadron of B-21 Stealth Bombers, we could use the equivalent of such auction revenues to reinvent public-interest media.

We and others have put forth other ideas that include offering a $250 refundable tax credit for paid news subscriptions and donations, and procuring state-level funding for hyperlocal and community-based reporting initiatives.

Taking these actions won’t doom for-profit news; many commercial outlets will continue to expand and innovate. But the future of news that benefits the civic health of our communities will be noncommercial.

Congress should examine legislative options that foster noncommercial news production before passing a bill that leaves the future of journalism to negotiations between traditional news outlets that have often served us poorly and Silicon Valley giants that do the same. Rather than attempt to revive a moribund business model, lawmakers must invest in news that puts the public first — and local journalists like Amy Brothers back to work.

Building a more robust and equitable public-interest media sector is the best remedy. We can save journalism by a structural shift of the news economy in this direction, and not by laws that prop up a media model that no longer functions.

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy at Free Press Action. Over the past 30 years he’s worked as a photojournalist, correspondent, and editor for numerous outlets including Time Inc., The New York Times, the Associated Press and Australian Consolidated Press.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.