Here’s a real bell-ringer: There’s something encouraging going on in Congress.
There’s bipartisan agreement on a measure that would give newspapers across the country a fighting chance to negotiate better terms with the digital monopolists, Google and Facebook.
As you are probably aware, newspapers around the country are in real trouble. Advertising dollars have migrated to digital forms, sucked up largely by those two behemoths. Google has monopolized search, and Facebook has monopolized social media. Between the two of them, they receive all of the growth of digital advertising, and then some.
“Then some” means that the advertising revenue stream that underwrote profitable private businesses in print newspapering has been decimated. Newspaper companies have responded by cutting staff, by closing, and by consolidating. About 1,800 newspapers have closed since 2004, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. Newsrooms have lost nearly half their staffs between 2008 and 2017, according to a Pew Research study.
Kansas is no exception: One company, GateHouse, has bought out 40 percent of the audience across the state and has cut newsgathering staff at the newspapers it now owns.
In the Manhattan region, this newspaper is still among the increasingly rare breed of family-owned and locally-operated news entities, but it is not immune from the pressures. We’ve raised circulation prices and cut overhead, production and distribution costs to try to maintain the newsgathering staff to the largest extent possible. We bought out news organizations in Geary and Pottawatomie counties to share overhead costs and improve news coverage regionally. We cut print schedules while boosting digital offerings, and we’ve branched out into glossy magazine publishing, among other things. But it’s an uphill struggle.
Google and Facebook allow readers to find and share our content in digital form, but those companies are the ones gathering digital advertising dollars. The Mercury, the Junction City Union and the Wamego Times benefit very little from that, unless readers actually are led to subscribe. In essence, Google and Facebook collect the revenue without actually producing anything. They certainly don’t show up to cover budget discussions at the City Commission. They don’t have a reporter dig for documents to show why the Geary County sheriff ended up in jail. They don’t report on your kids’ soccer team, and they don’t coordinate Manhattan Day or the county spelling bee, either. They build lavish campuses on the coasts with ping-pong tables and nap rooms for employees.
That’s capitalism. True. But those are the real monopolies in this day and age, and that’s where regulation is appropriate.
Instead, the reverse is true right now. It’s newspapers that are controlled by regulation. The measure in Congress would allow newspaper companies a temporary exemption from antitrust regulations to negotiate collectively with the tech giants. Perhaps it’s reasonable for them to share the gusher of money that they’re collecting with the news entities that serve the First Amendment-protected need to provide information in our representative democracy. After all, the news content certainly drives digital traffic from which the tech giants generate ad money.
The fact that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are supporting that measure is testimony to the common-sense nature of that idea. That’s heartening.
We certainly support it. We hope you will, and we hope our elected representatives will, too.