A bill to force Google and Facebook to pay for news moves closer to passage

Photo (cc) 2008 by Nick Ares

A controversial measure that could force Google and Facebook to pay for the news they repurpose has suddenly been revived in the last days of the lame-duck Congress. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow news organizations to skirt antitrust law and band together so they can negotiate with the two giant platforms over compensation. If negotiations fail, an outside arbitrator would be brought in to impose a settlement.

On the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I recently interviewed U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., one of the co-sponsors of the JCPA. Cicilline spoke of the measure in terms of breaking up Google and Facebook’s monopoly on digital advertising, which is certainly real enough. According to Statista, the two tech titans control 52% of the market.

I last wrote about the JCPA in August. And though I described the bill as having lurched back to life, there hadn’t been many signs since then that it was going anywhere. That is, until this week, when the measure was added to a “must pass” defense-funding bill. House Republicans oppose the JCPA, and with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on the verge of taking the speaker’s gavel, right now is the last chance. Sara Fischer and Ashley Gold have the details at Axios.

In August, I expressed some reservations about the JCPA but thought it was worth passing to see what would come out of it, especially since it was time-limited to four years (since doubled to eight). You often hear simplistic claims by proponents that Google and Facebook are republishing journalistic content without compensation. In fact, they’re not republishing anything. There’s no stealing and no copyright violation taking place. But there’s also no question that Google is far more valuable and useful because users are able to search for news content, and that some not-insignificant portion of Facebook’s traffic comes from users linking to and commenting on news stories. It does not strike me as unfair to insist that the platforms pay something for that value.

And yet the JCPA carries with it the possibility of some real downsides. Greedy corporate owners like Gannett and Alden Global Capital would benefit without any obligation to invest more in journalism. And though the legislation excludes larger news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, a similar law in Australia has served mainly to line the pockets of the press baron Rupert Murdoch.

A better bill, in my view, is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide for three tax credits: one for consumers who pay for a local news subscription; one for advertisers; and one for publishers that hire or retain journalists. As Steve Waldman of the Rebuild Local News Coalition told Ellen and me on “What Works,” that last provision, at least, would only benefit the corporate chains if they actually invest in journalism. But the LJSA has been seemingly stuck in congressional limbo for several years. If the JCPA passes, I can’t imagine that the LJSA will do anything other than disappear.

Facebook is threatening to eliminate all news content if the JCPA becomes law, a threat similar to one that it made and backed away from in Australia. The company, formally known as Meta, also ended its program of supporting local journalism recently, which will remove millions of dollars from what is an already shaky revenue stream.

I have to say that I was struck by a letter of opposition to the JCPA issued Monday by a coalition of 26 public-interest and trade organizations including the ACLU, the Internet Archive, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, Common Cause, the Wikimedia Foundation and the United Church of Christ Ministry (!). Among other things, the letter claims that the money will mainly benefit media conglomerates and large broadcasters without setting aside anything for journalists. The coalition puts it this way: “The JCPA will cement and stimulate consolidation in the industry and create new barriers to entry for new and innovative models of truly independent, local journalism.”

We’ll see how it works out. There’s no question that many local news organizations are in difficult straits, and that a guaranteed source of income from Google and Facebook may be the difference between thriving and just barely getting by. If the JCPA is approved, I just hope it doesn’t become one of those government programs that become a permanent part of the landscape. If it works, fine. If there are problems, fix them. And if it’s a disaster, get rid of it.

Contrarian Boston reports that The Sun is no longer shining in Lowell

The Sun left its iconic downtown headquarters quite a while ago, but it maintained offices in Lowell until recently. Photo (cc) 2014 by Dan Kennedy.

So where are the missing MediaNews Group dailies? Last week, I noted that Contrarian Boston couldn’t find any evidence that the Boston Herald had returned to its Braintree offices, two years after Northeastern journalism student Deanna Schwartz and I found that the Herald had decamped for The Sun in Lowell.

Now, in a follow-up, Mark Pickering reports for Contrarian Boston that The Sun is nowhere to be found, either. He writes:

For the city of Lowell, the disappearance of The Sun marks the end of an entire era. For decades, the publishers of such papers were local kings that often built impressive headquarters. And the papers were the prime way for residents to keep up with local news.

Pickering asks: Have the Herald and The Sun joined a number of other newspapers part of MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, that no longer have any newsrooms at all? The answer to that question is not entirely clear.

One story I’ve heard is that the Alden papers in Massachusetts have a warehouse in Westford. (Update: Or perhaps in Devens.) Papers are delivered from whatever printing plant they’re using these days before being trucked out. I’ve heard there are a few offices there that Alden journalists can use. But it appears that Alden journalists, for the most part, work at their homes except when they’re out reporting.

And let’s not forget that another MediaNews Group paper, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, was deprived of its offices several years before the pandemic. That means that all three of the chain’s Massachusetts papers are operating without a proper newsroom.

Clarification: I’ve now noted in the caption that The Sun left its iconic downtown headquarters years ago.

Some smart questions about Jeff Bezos and the Post. But what’s the alternative?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.

Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.

Please consider becoming a member of this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month. Click here to sign up.

Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:

Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.

But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.

As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”

But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.

What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”

But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.

All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?

In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer:A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.

Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.

A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.

Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?

It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.

Politico’s look at the LA Times has some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Patrick Soon-Shiong came along too late to make the cut. In mid-2018, the celebrity surgeon bought the Los Angeles Times and several other papers for $500 million. My book about a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” had just been published.

Too bad. Soon-Shiong is at least as interesting as the owners I wrote about: Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and re-established the legendary paper as a powerhouse; John Henry, who slowly transformed The Boston Globe into a growing and profitable enterprise; and Aaron Kushner, who poured money into the Orange County Register only to fail at attracting enough advertisers and readers to pay for his profligate spending.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Now Politico has weighed in with a lengthy story about the Times under Soon-Shiong that portrays his ownership as something of a mixed bag. He’s invested in the paper, reversing years of cost-cutting by its previous owner, Tribune Publishing (which for a time was known as tronc), and he’s put a highly regarded editor, Kevin Merida, in charge of the newsroom. But his interest in the paper seems to wax and wane, and his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, is portrayed as interfering in the newsroom.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by some of the wailing. The Politico article, by Daniel Lippman, Christopher Cadelago and Max Tani, claims that Nika Soon-Shiong has inserted herself into the process of endorsing political candidates as though that were somehow a bad thing. Now, the Times may be making some dumb endorsements, such as its decision to back Nika Soon-Shiong ally Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia, according to the Times’ own reporting, regards both Joe Biden and Donald Trump as “sexual predators.”

But a newspaper’s owners are free to insert themselves into the opinion pages as much as they’d like. A good owner will keep a distance from news operations, but the opinion section is their playground. John and Linda Henry are involved in the Globe’s editorial pages and no one thinks anything of it. Jeff Bezos’ lack of interest in the Post’s opinion operation is unusual.

Nika Soon-Shiong has also expressed her leftist views in a tweet (which she deleted) critical of her own paper’s crime coverage and in suggestions for story coverage. There is, for instance, this, which I find entirely benign, even salutory:

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Politico quotes Merida as saying that Nika Soon-Shiong has “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better,” and that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.” The fact-checker rates that statement as 100% true.

Patrick Soon-Shiong is a bit of an oddball. A profile in The New Yorker last year by Stephen Witt raised questions about his success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. But he has been a far better owner of the LA Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a throw-in that was part of the Times deal, than Tribune Publishing had been. Indeed, Soon-Shiong’s one unforgivable act as a newspaper owner was a non-act — his decision to do nothing to stop the sale of Tribune to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which of course began gutting its papers as soon as the deal was consummated.

Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Soon-Shiong, a billionaire, could have stopped the transaction and helped Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum with his bid to buy the chain. Instead, Alden wound up with Tribune, and Bainum has launched a digital nonprofit called The Baltimore Banner. In an interview with Brian Stelter, then of CNN, Soon-Shiong protested that he was a “passive investor,” adding: “I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.”

The Los Angeles Times is far better off under Soon-Shiong family ownership than it had been under years of Tribune mismanagement — mismanagement that would have turned into a rout under Alden. The Politico piece contains some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown.

Congress is talking once again about making Google and Facebook pay for news

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a lead sponsor of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

A bill that could force Google and Facebook to fork over billions of dollars to local news outlets has lurched back to life. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow publishers to negotiate as a bloc with the two giant tech platforms, something that would normally be prohibited because of antitrust concerns. The proposal would exclude the largest publishers and, as Rick Edmonds notes at Poynter Online, would lead to binding arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

The legislation’s cosponsors in the Senate are Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La.; the House cosponsors are David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo. That bipartisan support means the bill might actually be enacted. But is it a good idea?

You can support this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month. Please click here.

The premise on which the legislation is built is that Google and Facebook should pay fair compensation for repurposing the news content that they use. This strikes me as being much more straightforward with Google than with Facebook. Google’s mission is to index all the world’s knowledge, including journalism; Facebook is a social network, many of whose users post links to news stories. Facebook isn’t nearly as dependent on journalism as Google is and, in fact, has down-ranked it on several occasions over the years.

Google’s responsibility isn’t entirely clear, either. Yes, it links to news stories and publishes brief snippets. But it’s not a zero-sum situation — there’s no reason to believe that Google is depriving news publishers of traffic. It’s more likely that Google is pushing users to news sites and, with the rise of paywalls, may even be boosting subscriptions for local news outlets. Still, you could make a philosophical argument that Google ought to pay something because it benefits from having access to journalism, regardless of whether that deprives news outlets of any revenues.

A similar law in Australia has brought in $140 million, Edmonds reports. But critics have complained that the law’s main effect has been to further enrich Rupert Murdoch, still the leading press baron in his native country.

The JCPA should not be confused with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide three tax credits for local news outlets — one for subscribers, who would get to write off news subscriptions on their taxes; one for advertisers; and one for publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. As Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, recently told us on the “What Works” podcast, this last provision is especially powerful because it would provide an incentive to do the right thing even at bottom-feeding chains owned by Alden Global Capital and Gannett.

Despite bipartisan support, the LJSA ran aground last year when President Biden split off the publishers’ credit and added it to the doomed Build Back Better bill. Perhaps it will be revived.

Is either measure needed in order to revive local news? What Ellen Clegg and I have found in the course of reporting for our book-in-progress, also called “What Works,” is that many independent local and regional news organizations across the country, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are doing reasonably well without government assistance. Since both the JCPA and the LJSA would be time-limited, maybe it’s worth giving them a try to see what the effects will ultimately be. But neither one of them will save local news — nor is it clear that local news needs saving once you remove the dead hand of corporate chain ownership.

Memphis newspaper legend Otis Sanford on the rise of a new media ecosystem

Otis Sanford at his 2014 induction into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame

This week on the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Professor Otis Sanford, who is something of a journalistic legend in Memphis. As a general assignment reporter at The Commercial Appeal in 1977, Sanford covered the death of Elvis Presley. He also covered courts, county government and politics before being promoted into management. After stints at the Pittsburgh Press and Detroit Free Press, Sanford returned to The Commercial Appeal. In 2002 he was named managing editor and in 2007 he became editorial page editor.

As opinion editor in Memphis, Sanford launched a Citizens Editorial Board. While that was a number of years ago, Sanford was ahead of the curve in terms of community engagement.

In 2011, Sanford joined the University of Memphis Department of Journalism faculty. He holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic and Managerial Journalism. He still writes a column on politics and events in Memphis. It’s published in The Daily Memphian, a thriving startup founded by journalists and business people who were disappointed by the rounds of layoffs at The Commercial Appeal.

The Daily Memphian is one of two digital newsrooms launched by journalists who left The Commercial Appeal. The other newsroom is the award-winning MLK50, started by Wendi C. Thomas, to cover income inequality, race and justice issues.

I’ve got a quick take on the latest from The Baltimore Banner, a digital start-up that will be competing with the Baltimore Sun, acquired last year by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

Ellen looks at the new Votebeat site, a Chalkbeat spinoff that just might help election integrity.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Encore! Encore! Julie Reynolds talks about how Alden Global Capital destroys newspapers

Julie Reynolds

In this Encore Edition of “What Works,” freelance investigative journalist Julie Reynolds talks about her singular pursuit of the truth about Alden Global Capital, the secretive New York hedge fund that has gobbled up newspapers across the country, stripping assets and firing reporters. Reynolds connects the dots from Alden to Cerberus Capital Management, the “shadow bank” that backed Alden’s 2021 takeover of Tribune Publishing.

In Quick Takes, I explore pink slime news sites, and Ellen Clegg reports on some good news for newspaper readers in the town that inspired Frostbite Falls, home to Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Ellen and I interviewed Julie in October 2021, but her research is still valid today — an unfortunate circumstance for the future of independent local journalism. We’ll be back with fresh content next week.

You can listen to our conversation with Julie here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Not every newspaper chain is as bad as Gannett or Alden. Here’s a Mass. list.

Updated on Jan. 23, 2023

Recently I put together a crowdsourced spreadsheet of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts in order to show that community journalism hasn’t been entirely swallowed up by corporate chain journalism. If a paper is owned by an out-of-state group, it didn’t make the cut.

But not every chain is as bad as Gannett or Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group. Alden, as you may know, owns The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and the Boston Herald, all of which have been slashed to the bone — and beyond. Gannett is closing and merging our venerable weekly newspapers and reassigning local reporters to regional beats.

There aren’t too many other chain newspapers in Massachusetts, but there are a few — and all of them are doing a better job of serving their communities than Alden or Gannett. Here are the ones that come to mind:

CNHI, Montgomery, Alabama

  • Eagle-Tribune of North Andover (daily)
  • Daily News of Newburyport (daily)
  • Salem News (daily)
  • Gloucester Daily Times (daily)
  • Haverhill Gazette (weekly)
  • Andover Townsman (weekly)

Steven Malkowich of Vancouver, British Columbia*

  • Sun Chronicle of Attleboro (daily)
  • Foxboro Reporter (weekly)

Advance Publications of New York

  • Republican of Springfield (daily)
  • MassLive (digital)
  • Reminder (weeklies in multiple communities in the Greater Springfield area; click here for a list)

Newspapers of New England, Concord, New Hampshire

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton
  • Athol Daily News
  • Greenfield Recorder (daily)
  • Amherst Bulletin (weekly)
  • Valley Advocate of Northampton (alt-weekly)

CherryRoad Media, New Jersey
This small but growing chain of newspapers has acquired five weekly publications in Central Massachusetts from Gannett.

  • Millbury-Sutton Chronicle
  • Item of Clinton
  • Grafton News
  • Landmark of Holden
  • Leominster Champion

I think this is the complete list, but if you know of any more, just drop me a line at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.

*Malkowich’s holdings are … complicated. Here is a Los Angeles Times story that offers a little bit of background. I do know that he earns generally high marks for the way that he’s presided over The Sun Chronicle.

‘60 Minutes’ reports on Alden, Report for America and the local news crisis

Sunday’s “60 Minutes” episode on the local news crisis was a worthy if unoriginal treatment focusing on the depredations of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that is our worst newspaper owner. Viewers are also introduced to Report for America, the organization that’s placing journalists in underserved communities around the country. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can tune in here.

News organizations need to stop stonewalling on layoffs and diversity data

Photo (cc) 2009 by Richard Kendall

The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”

She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:

  • “Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
  • “A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
  • “Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”

Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:

The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”

Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend  meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?