Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters noticed something was off with the city of Atlanta’s standardized test results: they’d risen too high too quickly to be within the realm of statistical possibility.
So they dug into the data and discovered a massive cheating scandal, said AJC Editor Kevin Riley. Without the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, no one would have ever known that Atlanta educators altered students’ standardized test results in 44 public schools to make the district look more successful.
But despite top-notch investigative work from the AJC and other news outlets, the news industry as a whole continues to hemorrhage money and talent.
News media blamed Big Tech for journalism’s decline, especially in rural and local markets, at a House hearing on Tuesday, fueling the antitrust fire to break up companies like Facebook and Google.
“Our audience has never been larger than it is now,” Riley told members of the House Judiciary Committee. “We have more people reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution than at any point in our history. In what kind of world do you grow your audience and somehow face even greater financial challenges than before? Something is out of whack in that equation and counterintuitive to how business works. When you invest, and you succeed, you reap the benefits. That’s not happening for newspapers.”
And it’s Big Tech’s fault.
Representatives David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) described a causal relationship between Google’s acquisitions data and advertising companies and the decline of newspapers across the U.S.
Since 2007, Google has acquired most of its competitors, concentrating the ad market. Since 2007, almost 2,000 news publishers ceased operation. Nadler said many cities and counties don’t have local news at all.
“This journalism crisis is also a democracy crisis,” Nadler said. “American civic life suffers. A lot of [publications] don’t even assign a reporter to cover state and local government.” Nadler linked the lack of local government coverage to lower voter turnout.
It’s not just local news — the national outlets are struggling, too.
In a call with reporters before the hearing, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) and two recently laid off reporters, Laura Bassett formerly of HuffPost and John Stanton formerly of BuzzFeed, discussed how Big Tech’s impact extends to seemingly successful news sites like BuzzFeed.
“We’ve had something like 2,500 journalists lose their jobs this year,” Stanton said. “I think it’s a problem journalists need to start addressing. It’s tough for us because we don’t like to be advocates, it’s a separation of church and state kind of thing. But we have to start talking about this and taking an interest in this and standing up for ourselves against these Big Tech companies that are eating up all the ad revenue and impacting good and successful journalists.”
News media and members of Congress fear market concentration in the tech market disables journalists from providing an essential service to democracy: speaking truth to power.
“Diminished transparency may encourage governments to engage in riskier or more corrupt financial engagements,” Nadler said. “As the judge breaking up AT&T wrote, the values of the First Amendment coincide with antitrust enforcement.”
From an economics point of view, the Open Markets Institute’s Director of Enforcement Strategy Sally Hubbard said Big Tech companies essentially engage in rent-seeking when dealing with news media.
“Because they don’t have any competition, they’re free to pursue [destructive] practices without constraint,” she told members of the committee. “There is extraction that’s happening and there’s not fair bargaining power between the press and the tech platforms because that’s not a fair price, it’s a monopoly rent.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) warned against regulating a rapidly evolving industry and encouraged Congress not to rush to judgment in its antitrust fervor.
“Big is not necessarily bad,” he said. “We need to make sure both sides are involved, and that’s my concern in this. Everyone has the right to an opinion.”
During the press call before the hearing, DeSaulnier, Bassett and Chase and Neil Chase, CEO of CalMatters and former executive editor of The Mercury News and East Bay Times, discussed how individual philanthropists and nonprofits might save the news media if regulators and lawmakers don’t take action against Big Tech.
Already, nonprofits and philanthropists own and fund news outlets — some startups, some legacies, some print, some online — to sustain journalism. Paul Huntsman, for example, bought the failing Salt Lake Tribune in 2016 and wants to turn it into a nonprofit.
But journalists and members of Congress worry they may not have enough time for wealthy benefactors to save struggling news outlets. Cicilline introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in March, which would provide a “safe harbor” for news outlets to collectively negotiate with Facebook and Google on how the tech giants handle quality, accuracy and attribution of news articles.
More than 200,000 news outlets and 44 state press associations support the bill.
“We produce journalism that is distinguished by its depth, accuracy and originality,” Riley said. “That costs money and is expensive, but if the system works correctly, it also makes money that the paper uses to investigate and develop the next story or cover the next local event. If others repackage our journalism and make money off it, yet none of that money makes its way back to the local paper, then it makes breaking that next story or exposing the next scandal more challenging. If that cycle continues indefinitely, quality local journalism will slowly wither and eventually cease to exist.”