How US lawmakers should approach the news crisis

Last Friday, following a year of widespread cutbacks in local newsrooms, US lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee met for a hearing to discuss the journalism crisis. The meeting was the second in a series to consider changing antitrust laws to regulate tech platforms. “In recent years, the local news that is delivered through newspapers, online, and local broadcasts has been in a state of economic freefall,” Committee Chair Congressman David Cicilline (D—Rhode Island) said in an opening statement, adding, “it’s clear that we must do something in the short term to save trustworthy journalism before it’s lost forever.” Today, hearings will resume to consider strengthening laws to address monopoly power. 

Though the focus of last week’s hearing was to consider the role of legislation in ensuring a press unrestricted by monopolistic tech practices, discussion occasionally touched on the outsized influence of hedge funds over local journalism, underlining the complicated nature of political conversations about the economics of information. Is journalism a commodity? A service? A political tool? At various points throughout the hearing, journalism was referenced in all these terms, demonstrating a wide breadth of ideological approaches to “saving the free and diverse press.”

Several witnesses at the hearing expressed support for Journalism Competition and Preservation Act—introduced by Cicilline and three of his colleagues last Wednesday—which would allow publishers to negotiate collectively with tech platforms (Digiday lined up the possible implications, should the bill become law). Colorado Congressman Ken Buck—the top Republican on the subcommittee and a co-sponsor of the bill—told the Denver Post that while he once believed tech platforms could be challenged without government intervention, he now believes that it’s necessary to consider a “more extreme remedy.”

Discussions about media markets can be knotty, because the market imbalance coincides with power imbalances and matters of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Though media industry supporters have expressed some hope about last week’s bill, conversations about its salience indicated philosophical divisions among both lawmakers and witnesses. 

Among committee members on the right, the conversation tended to focus on questions of ideological power and control. “We cannot let [tech companies] become the arbiters of truth and the wielders of government-like power,” Buck said. Congressman Jim Jordan echoed a similar sentiment. “We are living in a new Gilded Age where tech billionaires—maybe soon to be trillionaires—have more power than any elected official in the land,” Jordan said, referring to written testimony from Glenn Greenwald that expressed alarm about tech “censorship,” like Twitter’s blocking of links to a spurious New York Post story about a laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden

Emily Barr—president and CEO of Graham Media Group, a broadcasting company owning seven local stations across the United States—spoke for the interests of news consumers, placing the emphasis on journalism as both a service and a political tool. “The nation’s broadcasters represent one of the last bastions of truly local, unbiased journalism – information that is still respected by all Americans,” Barr told the committee. “Your constituents turn to their local reporters and anchors for voices they trust.” 

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This subtle appeal to the interests of elected officials—ostensibly acting in the interests of those they represent, but also having a stake in the issue—emphasizes that the conversation is about access, but it’s also about authority. Though the jury is out on who currently holds the most power in the American communication system, it’s clearly not the American people. 

Jonathan Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, hit upon this dynamic in his written testimony. “The problem we are addressing is not merely the equitable split of money among a handful of giant corporations,” Schleuss said. “For the local news business, which now faces an unprecedented, dangerous decline, the product is information and analysis that your constituents need to cast an informed vote, to make decisions about their health, and to understand what is happening in their own neighborhood.”

As lawmakers continue to weigh options and make decisions about how to ensure the flourishing of a robust press, its benefits for the people of the United States ought to take precedence, and solutions should be framed in those terms. Information may, in this case, be a product, but trustworthy information is a basic necessity. And it’s increasingly scarce. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.) 

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • TWO MAPS SHOW THE STATE OF CANADIAN MEDIA: A year into its project mapping media cutbacks in Canada, the Canadian Journalism project reported the permanent closure of forty outlets across the country, and more than a thousand confirmed permanent, with as many as three thousand jobs cut across 182 publications. Their cutback map illustrates the effects of the pandemic on Canadian media. (Elsewhere, Project Oasis has put together a searchable map and database of digitally-focused local publications across Canada and the US, with reports on industry trends).
  • FACEBOOK EXPLORES ITS OWN PUBLISHING PLATFORM: Soon, Facebook will be testing paid partnerships with writers and reporters on its own publishing platform, Axios reported this week. “The platform patronage model continues to reshape publishing … is this a substack/Wordpress killer or another failed initiative in waiting?” Emily Bell asked on Twitter. “In the coming years, we are likely to see a further fracturing of journalism, both as an industry and in terms of what it means to be a journalist,” Jacob Silverman wrote in The New Republic. “A political pundit posting on Substack or Facebook may end up having more in common with a Twitch streamer than a New York magazine reporter. But all of them will have to eat, and in our dim journalistic future, it may not matter who’s writing the checks.”
  • NPR EMBEDS WITH THE CAPITAL GAZETTE: Last week, NPR’s Embedded podcast published its final episode of a four-part series following staff at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where four staff were murdered by a gunman in June of 2018. “As the series nears its conclusion, it shifts some of its focus to incorporate a second, very different type of crisis—telling the very specific story of journalists surviving a mass shooting at work against the much more common backdrop of crushing cuts to the news business,” Jon Allsop wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter.
  • ALDEN/TRIBUNE DEAL ENCOUNTERS A CHALLENGE: A month after reports that Alden Global Capital would take over ownership of Tribune Publishing by purchasing the remaining shares it does not already own, Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. has made a push toward making his own bid for Tribune, The New York Times reported on Sunday. In a previously reported plan, Alden intended to spin off ownership of three Maryland papers to Bainum Jr.’s nonprofit. Now, Bainum Jr. is looking to expand his ownership, Marc Tracey writes. (For Poynter, Rick Edmonds argued that such a scenario is unlikely).
  • LOCAL NEWSROOMS GET PENSION RELIEF: The new COVID relief bill offers significant pension relief to local newsrooms, NiemanReports wrote last week. “By more than doubling the runway to make defined-benefit contributions and enhancing predicted investment yields, the legislation aims to keep these plans funded and away from federal takeover,” Craig Forman writes. “If they succeed, this pension relief will be seen as a national investment in local democracy that may actually cost taxpayers nothing.”
  • STUDENT JOURNALISTS LAUNCH A WIRE SERVICE: In March of 2020, student journalists at California State University—the largest public university in the United States—launched a wire service for all school publications in its system, NiemanLab reported. “Universities play major roles and impact the communities they’re based in, and student media often fills the gaps and breaks news where professional news outlets don’t have reporters,” Hanaa’ Tameez writes. The newswire allows CSU students to network, increasing their margins by sharing photos, reporting, and stories.
  • HOW TWO JOURNALISM STARTUPS IN MEXICO SURVIVED: Two independent digital journalism startups in Mexico grew their operations amid the pandemic, the International Journalists’ Network reported, depending upon reader support and philanthropic aid in addition to leveraging their skills to teach classes and partner with other news organizations. Verificado.com.mx offers consulting services and fact-checking courses. When La Verdad de Ciudad Juarez received a positive response after asking for reader donations, they used the opportunity to launch a newsletter and conduct virtual events.
  • CONGRESSWOMAN RETIRES: Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick—cosponsor of the bill for the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would introduce various tax credits in support of local news—has announced that she will not run for reelection in 2022.
  • BUZZFEED EYES IPO: BuzzFeed is in talks to go public, Bloomberg reported last week, following layoffs at BuzzFeed News in July of 2020 and layoffs at HuffPost last week, in addition to the closure of HuffPost Canada and HuffPost UK.
  • THE STATE OF THINGS IN MAGAZINES: Condé Nast CEO Robert Lynch told The Information that 2020 had been a very difficult year for the company, due to lost advertising revenue amid the pandemic. Adweek reported that The New Yorker—one of Condé Nast’s publications—is rolling out a new virtual events series, a trend in the industry that Mark Stenberg reports is likely to extend beyond the pandemic. Meanwhile, the New Yorker Union continues its organizing efforts. (Elsewhere, the Fortune Union stopped work for twenty-four hours on Tuesday).

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites