Special to Moonshine Ink
Over the last couple of decades, the relationship between Big Tech and journalism has essentially been one of predator and prey. Platforms like Facebook and Google have bled newsrooms dry, vacuuming up the billions of dollars of ad revenue that used to be the lifeblood of hundreds of publications across the country.
While there is certainly nuance to this transformation in media — many newsrooms didn’t do themselves any favors by being slow to adapt to digital transformation and newspapers were in a shallow decline before Big Tech came along — the overall story holds true. Newsrooms have been decimated, journalism has suffered, and Big Tech has benefited.
One of the hardest hit sectors of journalism has been local newspapers. While large, national publications like the New York Times eventually adapted to a new, digital business model and are doing well, at least by certain metrics, local news has been hit hard almost without exception.
Scale is what matters in the digital world. And small, community newspapers, by design, do not have scale. What little revenue they had to begin with was siphoned off. It didn’t take much to make these barely profitable ventures fold. And fold they did.
“More than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, leaving residents in thousands of communities living in vast news deserts,” said a report out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Media Law and Policy.
Of the publications that survived, many have become “ghost newspapers” — a shell of their former selves without the resources or manpower to adequately cover their communities.
Meanwhile, companies like Google have grown relentlessly, in part on the backs of reporters and news organizations. A study by News Media Alliance revealed that Google brought in $4.7 billion in advertising revenue on news in 2018 alone.
We have yet to fully grasp the impact of this transformation in the country’s media environment. But all signs point to the disintegration of local news leading to wide-ranging negative outcomes throughout U.S. communities from coast to coast.
“[Local news outlets] help to shape community views around common values and beliefs, creating a sense of shared purpose that can be a powerful uniting force within a town or county. Without a source for local news, community members get most of their news from social media, leaving them vulnerable to mis- and disinformation and exacerbating political polarization,” said the University of North Carolina report.
Now, some welcome news. There may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for local newsrooms. It’s too early to tell whether or not it will materialize, but Google, Facebook and other large tech platforms might actually have to compensate media organizations for the news they share on their platform. The movement started outside of the U.S. Australia, in particular, has been a leader in forcing these technology companies to compensate media organizations for the content they create. Europe has followed suit. Legislative and legal efforts to force Big Tech to either share ad revenue or compensate media organizations are in motion.
“The solution to the social media squeeze is not the gradual cultural change we seek from our print readers and online users. It’s immediate regulatory push-back against the worst instincts of Facebook and Google,” wrote the Palm Beach Post in an editorial about efforts to assure newsrooms are made whole for the content they create.
The Palm Beach Post likened Big Tech to Napster — the early file-sharing startup that offered up music for free to its users. Except, in that story, the music industry pushed back and stopped what was an existential threat to its business model. The news business has not been as effective.
Is it too little, too late? Will the U.S. follow the lead of Australia, which forced the hand of Google? Will enough funding trickle down to small newsrooms to revive a vibrant community journalism resurgence in the U.S.?
It’s too early to tell. But this glimmer of hope in an industry that has seen such desperate lows over the past decade-plus, is, by itself, noteworthy.
And our country, which has been ravaged by a steep decline in rational thought, civic connection, and media literacy, might finally be realizing that local journalism is holding together more than just a few journalists’ livelihoods. If quality community journalism continues to decline, the consequences for our country are unknown, but legitimately frightening. Imagine a world where the thin ranks of local newsrooms become even thinner, replaced by the ravings of Facebook extremists and search-ranking conspiracy theorists.
Making Big Tech pay even a sliver of the billions of dollars in revenue they reap from journalists’ work could go a long way toward righting a wrong that is affecting almost every community across the country. And it would tilt the world back toward balance, after years of platforms reaping all the rewards and publishers bearing all the cost of producing the content. And balance is perhaps what we need most in these wild times.