It’s been a rough year for almost everyone. The pandemic, a contentious election and a depressed economy sent many of us reeling. It’s hard to know for sure when we’ll finally recover from the past 12 months, but that day will come.
For newspapers, which always seem to be relaying the desperate situation they face, the next few years will also be telling.
It’s no secret nearly all newspapers are struggling financially and have been for years. Some of it has been self-inflicted, like the moment more than two decades ago when we decided to put all of our content online for free. We created the habits and expectation that news should be free for everyone to consume. It’s a hole we’ve been trying to dig out of ever since.
Journalists naturally want stories to be available to everyone because they have relevance and can make a real difference in people’s lives. But from a practical standpoint, it takes serious effort to research and write stories that benefit the public. Those stories don’t just materialize out of thin air. Newspapers have to pay somebody to do that work.
There is the option of just keeping everything status quo. Of course, if we do that, it won’t be long before all community newspapers shrivel on the vine. Since 2004, 82 Minnesota newspapers have closed, permanently. And the pandemic is likely expediting that process for many more.
So while part of what ails newspapers should be solved by newspapers, there is one area of concern that most people don’t realize exists.
Google and Facebook, the Goliaths of the content distribution world, are directly benefitting from the hard work of journalists. They have set the rules about what you are going to see in a search, how stories are prioritized and how they can make money off it.
Meanwhile, newspapers continue to struggle because our model is about content creation and that costs money. Our survival depends on advertising and subscribers, both of which have shrunk considerably.
That’s why the recently reintroduced Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is an important tool in helping newspapers find their way in the new world. It is designed to allow all publishers, from the mom and pop operators in Otter Tail County, to larger chains elsewhere, the ability to negotiate as one with Google and Facebook to provide equitable revenue-sharing terms for all newspapers. The act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, would give the media a four-year window to negotiate with Google and Facebook and a fighting chance to remain viable.
According to the News Media Alliance, for every dollar made in digital advertising, Google and Facebook take as much as 70% of the revenue. Equally concerning is that the big two control so much of what comes across your smartphone or desktop computer.
Meanwhile, where do you turn when you need to know if your school board is seeking an operating levy and what that means for individual taxpayers? Who reports on your city council and its decision to add or subtract police officers from your department? Who is digging deeper into the effect of the pandemic and how it is affecting local business and how vaccinations are rolling out?
As an objective defender of our communities, community newspapers have always played the role of protecting citizens, keeping readers informed and holding government officials accountable. Likewise, we cherish our role as a community unifier. We understand that it is people who make our communities strong and keeping everyone connected is a key to that strength and identity.
This past year has given us all time to reflect on what’s important in our lives, and certainly being informed is something we can all agree is important for our democracy.
It’s time Google and Facebook come to the table to start paying for the food, our content, they devour every day. You can help by reaching out to Minnesota congressional leaders to urge their support of this legislation. Is this the silver bullet that will save all newspapers? No, but finding a way to solve this massive inequity is in the best interest of everyone, especially our communities. Otherwise, the day will come when all that newspaper-generated content will evaporate. Even Google and Facebook must realize that’s not good for anyone.
Contact for all Minnesota Congressional leaders can be found at this address: www.tinyurl.com/nav42d8z. For Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, contact Congressman Pete Stauber, (202) 225-6211 and
Minnesota U.S. Senate Members Amy Klobuchar, (202) 225-3244 and Tina Smith, (202) 225-5641.
Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota