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Federal law can stand up with fairness for local news

This guest editorial is written by the Detroit Lakes Tribune, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.

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Big Tech online platforms like Facebook and Twitter are still pilfering and then profiting off the hard work of local news outlets like the News Tribune. Local journalists are the dedicated professionals who monitor and cover public safety, city councils, school boards, and other public bodies, bravely reporting how our tax dollars are being spent. Tech giants are the ones just taking and republishing local news content without compensation. Just as bad, they’re also stealing away local advertisers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has long been attempting to introduce fairness with federal legislation to help local news survive before it’s choked out by the online giants.

On Aug. 23, Klobuchar announced her latest effort, a revised and expanded version of the previously introduced Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Already it has bipartisan support. What it needs is swift passage in D.C. before local news as we know it — and as we need it — ceases to exist.

“As the daughter of a newspaperman, I understand firsthand the vital role that a free press plays in strengthening our democracy,” Klobuchar said in a statement to the media, including to the News Tribune Opinion page. “But 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,” added Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights. “Our bipartisan legislation ensures media outlets will be able to engage in good-faith negotiations to receive fair compensation from the Big Tech companies that profit from their news content, allowing journalists to continue their critical work of keeping communities informed.”

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The bill would remove legal obstacles that now prevent local news organizations from negotiating collectively in order to secure fairer terms from Big Tech companies. The act also would require those companies to negotiate in good faith and would allow news publishers to demand arbitration if they reach an impasse in negotiations.

In addition to Klobuchar, a Democrat, the revised bill was released two weeks ago by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana; Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island; Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colorado; and Senate and House Judiciary Committee Chairs Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.

The issue clearly is one around which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can rally and support. And it’s far from the first legislative attempt to help level the playing field for the critical work done by journalists.

The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act would limit large online platforms' participation in the digital-advertising process rather than allowing them to continue to monopolize entire transactions. And the Local Journalism Sustainability Act was proposed to create tax credits for print or digital local newspaper publishers who employ and hire local journalists. The credits were meant to help decelerate newsroom layoffs.

"These big-tech companies are not friends to journalism," Klobuchar testified last summer before a Senate judiciary subcommittee on competition, antitrust, and consumer rights, as they relate to journalism. "They are raking in ad dollars while taking news content, feeding it to their users, and refusing to offer fair compensation. And they're making money on consumers' backs by using the content produced by news outlets to suck up as much data about each reader as they can. …

"We need to recognize that what separates the news from the vast majority of our other industries is its crucial role in our democratic system of government," Klobuchar further testified. "That's why our Founders enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment. So when the exercise of monopoly power results in a market failure in our news industry, it's critically important for our democracy that we act."

The fallout from Google's and Facebook's practices on local newsrooms is disturbing to anyone who values reliable information. An estimated 30,000 newsroom jobs disappeared between 2008 and 2020, as WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston, reported last summer. In addition, approximately 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving about 1,800 communities across the country without any local news coverage at all. That means no one to watchdog local elected leaders and their decisions that impact us where we live.

Legislation including the revised and expanded Journalism Competition and Preservation Act promise help. But promise isn’t enough. With a goal of preserving the vibrant and independent press that's so critical to the success and future of our nation and democracy, bipartisan support needs to translate into passage — before it’s too late.

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This guest editorial was written by the Alexandria Echo Press, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.