Another View: Reaping riches from newspapers

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As everyone knows, newspapers that serve regional readers face historic challenges these days.

The traditional ad-generated revenue base has dwindled dramatically. Classified ads were cannibalized by Craigslist and others, many display ads found other outlets, and print subscribers declined as people saw less need to know about important matters or found some content free on their smartphones. To remain in business, newspapers have scrambled to inform the public with far fewer resources.

At the same time, the technology behemoth Google has been leveraging the content produced by newspapers and repackaging it online, generating advertising dollars on the backs of local publishers.

How much money? According to a study released this week by the News Media Alliance, a newspaper trade association, Google alone generated $4.7 billion — billion, with a B — from news publishers last year through its search and news function. All that money went to Google. None went to the people and organizations that wrote and edited those news stories and shot those news photographs. The amount of news in Google search results ranges from 16 to 40 percent, the study found.

Since they depend on the news industry, digital giants such Google, Facebook and others may at some point find it necessary to share some of that money with the news organizations that help them reap billions of dollars. Let us hope so.

Fortunately, members of Congress, including Rhode Island's own Rep. David Cicilline, have been considering bills that would grant news publishers a four-year antitrust exemption so they can negotiate with digital publishers like Google for a more equitable split of revenue.

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"Our democracy is strongest when we have a free, open press that informs citizens, holds public officials accountable, and roots out corruption," said Mr. Cicilline, who commendably introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the House. By allowing news organizations some operating room to negotiate with technology companies like Google, Congress can "ensure consumers have access to the best journalism possible," he said.

Google, by the way, contests the conclusions of the News Media Alliance study, calling its calculations "back of the envelope" and "inaccurate."

Yet the fact remains that newspapers pay reporters, photographers and editors to produce news that tech companies offer to their own clients, collecting ad dollars, none of which come back to the original producers.

If local and regional news organizations are starved of their ability to make money, the stories and photos will go away entirely. That carries a steep hidden cost to our society. Citizens will be less knowledgeable about their government, and more susceptible to liars and demagogues. This will be a boon to those who seek to gain unaccountable power, and a curse to freedom, which depends on transparency and an informed electorate.

We're at a critical juncture for the news business, and also for democracy in America. As the Pew Research Center has reported, the news industry has suffered a 54 percent drop in revenues since 2006. The growing clout of technology platforms, which have ominously taken to censoring political speech, has played a major role in this trend.

We can do nothing, and watch local news operations be reduced further, or we can take reasonable actions to reallocate the way technology companies profit from the efforts of local news organizations.

— The Providence (R.I.) Journal, June 13


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