There is a specter haunting the news business: the digital ad duopoly of Facebook and Google. Together, those two mega corporations alone control nearly three-quarters of all digital advertising spending in the United States. And the trends are only getting worse: Eighty-three percent of digital ad revenue growth is now going to the two behemoths. The rest of the internet is increasingly getting crumbs, in other words.
That's been a huge problem for newspaper readers. Here's why: Print-newspaper circulation has fallen in recent years, as people have increasingly gone online to get their news. In tandem, print advertising revenue has fallen — classified ads, in particular.
The idea back in more optimistic times was that newspapers could make up their losses on the print side by selling online advertising. But that has proved a challenge — with Facebook and Google utterly dominating that business, in part by repackaging and monetizing our work.
As a result, newsrooms have shrunk, and with them the ability to dig out news. And that's a big problem for those of us who care about building and maintaining an informed, educated citizenry.
Reporting is an arduous undertaking, whether it takes place in the mountains of Afghanistan or behind a desk, spending hours going through obscure public records.
But, finally, we are happy to note some encouraging news: Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island is planning to introduce a bill in Congress that, in the words of the News Media Alliance (a trade group representing almost 2,000 news organizations) "would amend anti-trust laws to incorporate a safe harbor, allowing news publishers to negotiate with the big tech platforms, and therefore flowing needed ad dollars back to the deserving parties, the news publishers."
Cicilline is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. His support matters. (And he could be in line to chair the panel if the Democrats were to win the House of Representatives this fall.)
The congressman's idea makes strong sense. In reality, newspapers are seldom directly competing against one another these days. Newspapers should be able to band together and negotiate better deals with the tech giants. At a minimum, they must be able to earn a percentage of the ad dollars their reporting helps to generate. Facebook and Google cannot feast on the entirety of the fruits of the news industry's labor.
To maintain our democratic rule-based system of government, there simply must be a robust and independent press. Otherwise our system of government cannot function.
Imagine a world in which politicians could commit corruption with impunity; where literally made-up "fake news" would replace actual information; where we would have no idea what our elected officials were doing in our name and with our tax dollars. That's the dystopian future we might face.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD