A pressman pulls a copy of one of the final editions of the Rocky Mountain News off a press at the Washington Street Printing Plant of the Denver Newspaper Agency in Denver, on Feb. 26, 2009. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

A pressman pulls a copy of one of the final editions of the Rocky Mountain News off a press at the Washington Street Printing Plant of the Denver Newspaper Agency in Denver, on Feb. 26, 2009. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Editorial: Google, Facebook ought to pay for news they use

Legislation would allow newspapers and others to bargain for producing news big tech profits from.

By The Herald Editorial Board

We’ve made the point previously that — at a time when newspapers across the country are laying off staff, when not closing papers altogether — newspapers and other media outlets do make money; it’s just that a good chunk of that money isn’t going to the print and broadcast operations that pay reporters, photographers and others who are doing the work of journalism.

Click on a link in a Google search or on a news story on Facebook and the revenue from their advertising doesn’t go to the outlet that produced that story but to the social media giants themselves.

A study from 2019, published by the News Media Alliance, found that Google alone made an estimated $4.7 billion in revenue in 2018 by “crawling and scraping news publishers’ content — without paying the publishers for that use.”

That’s a parasitic diversion of funds that media outlets need as the nation emerges from a devastating pandemic, which hit when newspapers already were facing long-standing losses of revenue from advertising as news media outlets make the transition from print to digital.

As many as a third of American newspapers that informed their communities two decades ago are expected to be out of business by 2025, according to the 2022 State of Local News annual report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Newspapers are closing at the rate of two each week; and since 2005, when newspaper revenues topped $50 billion, those revenues have declined to $20 billion, and overall newspapers’ newsroom employment has dropped 70 percent over the same period.

As each newsroom loses staff, and newspapers cut days of publication or even close outright, the nation’s news deserts expand, wrote Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s former media columnist, earlier this summer.

“As local news disappears, bad things happen: Voter participation declines. Corruption, in business and government, finds more fertile ground. And false information spreads wildly,” she wrote, regarding the Medill report.

There is recent movement, however, on legislation in Congress that if passed would drag Facebook, Google and other big technology companies to the negotiating table with news media outlets and — under the prospect of binding arbitration — require the parties to come to an agreement on what big tech should pay for the news it uses.

Call it a subscription, just like the one most of our readers pay.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act has been kicking around Congress for a few years, but with some recent changes — including the binding arbitration requirement and a longer period — has bipartisan support in both House and Senate and is now in the process of revisions in the Senate this month prior to possible debate.

The act would waive antitrust laws, allowing news outlets to create one or more “joint negotiating” teams, according to a recent Q&A article on the Poynter journalism website, to enter talks with the social media companies. Any local news outlet — print or broadcast — that employs reporters and produces news could voluntarily join a negotiating team. To ensure the money goes toward producing journalism, any payments would be distributed 65 percent based on the number of journalists working 20 hours or more at a publication; with the remaining 35 percent based on the “impressions” or clicks for each platform.

The arrangement isn’t untested. Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code has resulted in talks that returned about $150 million total to that country’s media outlets. If $150 million sounds less than impressive, Australia’s population is about a twelfth that of the U.S. In the code’s first year, the Australian Broadcasting Co., the nation’s public broadcasting network, used the revenue that it negotiated to hire 50 new journalists, the Columbia Journalism Review reported earlier this year.

Likewise, Canadian media companies were able to negotiate deals with Google and Facebook in 2021 that returned revenue to support hiring at newspapers in Western Canada owned by Black Press Group, Ltd. — the parent company of Sound Publishing and The Daily Herald Co. — Josh O’Connor, the company’s president and former Herald publisher, told The Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley.

The additional revenue that resulted from the agreement isn’t a panacea, O’Connor said, but it has made a difference.

“It’s helped through the pandemic our ability to get people back to full-time hours and be able to invest in the critical journalism we need in small towns throughout British Columbia and Alberta,” he said. “It’s a small portion toward that at the end of the day but it certainly is helping a bit.”

As yet, only one member of Washington state’s congressional delegation — Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, representing the 7th Congressional District — has signed on as a sponsor to the legislation. The legislation has true bipartisan support in each chamber; seven Republicans and six Democrats co-sponsoring in the Senate, where Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is the primary sponsor; and 44 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the House.

Recognizing the importance of local journalism to the state and its communities that depend on it, we encourage Washington’s members of Congress to push for passage of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act and encourage Google, Facebook and others to fairly negotiate with the news media outlets that help drive customers to their services and help them earn substantial advertising revenue.

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