Editorial: Remove Big Tech's boot from neck of local news

The Detroit News

Congress opened what is expected to be a long and deep antitrust investigation of Big Tech by hearing testimony on how the giant technology companies are impacting local journalism. It's a fine place to start, because perhaps nowhere is the result of their bullying more evident.

Congress intends over the next 18 months to examine a number of concerns about Big Tech companies.

The decline of the news industry is not entirely the fault of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon, but they are significant contributors.

Publishers and other media execs who testified Tuesday informed the House Judiciary Committee of the perilous status of local news. This year, another 2,900 reporters and other newsroom staffers have lost their jobs. Advertising revenue dropped to $15.6 billion in 2017 from $49 billion in 2006.

This has been going on year after year for nearly two decades, as the Big Tech companies have expanded their reach into the news business.

Congress intends over the next 18 months to examine a number of concerns about these companies.

The four have bought up 250 companies, many of them potential competitors who were absorbed before they could become a threat.

Complaints also center on whether their size and immense wealth have given them undue control of the marketplace, and that they are using their dominance to skew the national political debate and shut out conservative views. 

In addition, they'll be scrutinized by Congress for their handling of the personal data they collect from their users. 

Big Tech's impact on local news is indisputable. The mega platforms pull content from local news providers to populate their sites without fairly compensating the original sources. 

The platforms drain away advertising dollars attached to that content that otherwise might be going to the originating news organizations. 

“Concentration in the digital advertising market has pushed local journalism to the verge of extinction,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island.

News organizations are asking Congress for specific relief in the form of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would suspend antitrust provisions for four years to give them more leverage in bargaining with the Big Tech companies.

“Smaller news organizations don’t stand a fair negotiating chance when they try to negotiate deals with the platform giants,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, who with Cicilline is co-sponsoring the bill.

The act would allow media outlets to band together to reach consolidated deals with the dominant online players. 

Talking points supporting the bill note that, "The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that the majority of Americans access news through only two platforms— Facebook and Google."

That news is being produced primarily by local journalists, while Google and Facebook are reaping most of the financial benefit.

The concentration of so much control over the distribution of news also gives rise to the spread of "fake news." Too much of what's posted on these platforms is not credible, and that damages trust in the news industry as a whole.

The giant social media platforms have local news sites in a take-it-or-leave-it position.  

Passage of the Newspaper Competition and Preservation Act won't fully change that. But it is an important first step toward removing the boot of Big Tech from the neck of local journalism.