Big Tech isn’t the death knell for local news

“Big Tech” has become the catch-all scapegoat for almost every perceived ill imaginable. Depending on who you talk to, companies under this umbrella are turning kids transgender, disrupting democracy or even perpetuating income inequality. The latest claim is that Big Tech is contributing to the decline of journalism outlets. Proposed legislation would seek to bail out these small news outlets with exemptions to antitrust rules. However, the bill in question is based on faulty beliefs about changes in news reporting and would only add to the increasing efforts to target Big Tech with unfair changes to antitrust law.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, also known as Senate Bill 673, would essentially legalize collusion by allowing for organized and joint negotiations by news content creators. This exemption would be permitted for four years as long as it is against big tech. 

The bill’s prime sponsor, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), justifies legalizing this behavior, which has traditionally been illegal under antitrust law, because she sees news companies as falling victim to the transition to a digital economy. Klobuchar states that “local news is facing an existential crisis in our country, with ad revenues plummeting, newspapers closing, and many rural communities becoming ‘news deserts’ without access to local reporting. To preserve strong, independent journalism, we have to make sure news organizations are able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that have come to dominate news distribution and digital advertising.” 

There is no doubt that journalism has been forced to adapt to a more global, digital ecosystem, with local news and newspapers in general declining. Gannett is the country’s largest newspaper chain, and even they have been forced to close 120 newspapers in two years. The COVID-19 pandemic expedited the process. 360 newspapers closed between late 2019 and the end of May 2022 in the U.S., with the majority of these papers not being replaced in digital or print form.

The decline in newspapers is partially a product of the failure to adequately transition to online readership. Placing the responsibility on major tech platforms that could potentially facilitate this transition is misplaced. Blaming Big Tech also ignores the opportunity that this gap has provided for other organizations to fill the void.

The Local News Initiative out of Northwestern University has detailed how organizations cover niche topics in rural areas through private funding and grants. Arnold Ventures is one example of an organization that has supported investigative journalism. A project of theirs covered sexual assault cases in the state’s rural and tribal areas, resulting in increased funding and training for sexual-assault nurse examiners. Philanthropic giving that seeks to address these information gaps can often target more niche issues than traditional media and drive changes that were ignored beforehand. 

Even with nonprofits and charitable organizations stepping into the media void, SB 673 still seeks government intervention. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, believes that a lack of local news “translates to unchecked governmental corruption, corporate misconduct, and widespread misinformation, plus a raft of other consequences for citizens, taxpayers, and our democracy.” While access to information is important, the idea that a lack of local news threatens our democracy is not accurate. 

For Nadler’s assertion to be correct, local news would have to drive voting, and voting, in turn, would need to prevent corruption. While the relationship between high levels of government corruption and low voter turnout is well-established, this does not mean that low voter turnout causes high levels of corruption. In fact, according to a study that focused on 170 European regions, perceived corruption drives low turnout, not the other way around. 

Furthermore, a study out of Bowling Green State University found that neither local nor national news could predict political efficacy. While a paper published in The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics shows that reading newspapers is a strong predictor of political participation, the role of the internet in being a predictor of political participation is limited. While the authors focused on those that used the internet for entertainment purposes, this still undermines the idea that social media platforms should be responsible for promoting local news or that doing so would promote political engagement. 

The idea that the decline of local journalism is tantamount to a decline in democracy and vital government services is false. Creating a legal carveout for small newspapers to weaponize against Big Tech will fail to achieve the stated objectives of the bill’s sponsors. Instead, it will simply add to the political efforts seeking to change antitrust laws to punish successful tech companies. 

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