Disrupting Journalism: How platforms have upended the news

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.


After decades of shrinking revenues, and an increasing expectation among consumers that journalism should be free, the global media industry has reached a crisis point. As legacy news outlets shut down or lay off staff, misinformation and conspiracy theories run rampant, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Trust in our institutions of governance continues to decline, fueling an alarming rise in extremism and political violence across previously stable democracies. In the Global South, the impact of journalism’s decline has been even more striking, with the rise of a new generation of autocrats skilled in manipulating the online conversation to suit their consolidation of power. 

While there is no single cause for the decline in traditional news media, much of the blame has been focused on online platforms, whose profits traditionally have grown even as funding for journalism dries up. There is a connection between these two trends, since the platforms’ control over how we access information means that news media organizations are dependent on them to distribute their products. Facebook and Google have used this to leverage a dominant position over the online advertising market, keeping the lion’s share of profits for themselves and disrupting a key revenue source for supporting journalism.

While the scope of the problem, and its impacts, are clear, the question of what to do about it is much thornier. Governments around the world have proposed a range of legislative and regulatory solutions to strengthen the financial position of the news media industry, generally at the expense of large online platforms. The responses can take the form of direct-subsidy and tax credit programs, as Canada has introduced, or mandates requiring online platforms to negotiate licensing deals with news media outlets, as is the case in Australia. Both efforts are controversial. Any subsidy or tax credit scheme administered by the government must include some form of eligibility requirements, which in turn requires the state to make determinations about who is or is not a journalist, a question that raises deep legal and social questions. If governments are given discretion over who qualifies for funding, this power could be used to punish disfavored political perspectives. But if the threshold for qualifying is too low, it could result in channeling resources to the worst purveyors of misinformation and hate, further degrading the political discourse. Some journalists have also raised concerns that these programs, even if administered fairly, could further erode public confidence in their reporting, by creating a perception that they are beholden to their government or Big Tech paymasters.

There is also a tension between calls to harness the resources of major platforms to support journalism and ongoing antitrust and competition inquiries that view the platforms’ market power as the heart of the problem. There are concerns that a licensing model that ties the future of journalism to the profitability of Big Tech will make it more difficult to break the companies up and further entrench the surveillance-heavy business model they are built around. Every proposed solution involves trade-offs and challenges. However, given the foundational importance of the press to a functioning democracy, and the existential crisis facing newsrooms around the world, inaction is not an option.

This series, which builds on the work of a new Information Policy Lab developed by Courtney Radsch and myself, aims to present a range of global perspectives on the impact of online platforms on the news media industry, and potential solutions to support sustainable journalism and information integrity. The authors were given a relatively free hand to focus on the aspects of the current moment that they felt were most important and to suggest solutions that they think are most likely to bear fruit. Our aim in publishing this is to provide context to the legislative debates taking place in Washington, Brussels, Silicon Valley, and around the world, and to highlight the need for transnational thinking in developing appropriate solutions.

For more discussion of questions related to news media sustainability, please consider registering for the ITLP’s upcoming Symposium on Platforms and the Press, which takes place at UCLA Law School on March 3–4.

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Michael Karanicolas is the executive director of the Institute for Technology, Law, and Policy, a new research collaboration between the UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.