California’s protectionist legislation

I just submitted a letter opposing the so-called California Journalism Preservation Act that is now going through the Senate. Here’s what I said (I’ll skip the opening paragraph with my journalistic bona fides):

Like other well-intentioned media regulation, the CJPA will result in a raft of unintended and damaging consequences. I fear it will support the bottom lines of the rapacious hedge funds and billionaires who are milking California’s once-great newspapers for cash flow without concern for the information needs of California’s communities. I have seen that first-hand, for I was once a member of the digital advisory board for Alden Capital’s Digital First, owner of the Bay Area News Group. For them, any income from any source is fungible and I doubt any money from CJPA will go to actually strengthening journalism.

The best hope for local journalism is not the old newspaper industry and its lobbyists who seek protectionism. It will come instead from startups, some not-for-profit, some tiny, that serve local communities. These are the kinds of journalists we teach in the Entrepreneurial Journalism program I started at my school. These entrepreneurial journalists will not benefit from CJPA and their ventures could be locked out by this nonmarket intervention favoring incumbent competitors. From a policy perspective, I would like to see how California could encourage new competition, not stifle it. I concur with the April letter from LION publishers.

More important, the CJPA and other legislation like it violates the First Amendment and breaks the internet. Links are speech. Editorial choice is speech. No publisher, no platform, no one should be forced to link or not link to content — especially the kinds of extremist content that is ruining American democracy and that could benefit from the CJPA by giving them an opening to force platforms to carry their noxious speech.

Note well that the objects of this legislation, Facebook and Google, would be well within their rights to stop promoting news if forced to pay for the privilege of linking to it. When Spain passed its link tax, Google News pulled out of the country and both publishers and citizens suffered for years as a result. Meta has just announced that it will pull news off its platforms in Canada as a result of its Bill C-18. News is frankly of little value to the platforms. Facebook has said that less than four percent of its content relates to news, Google not much more. Neither makes money from news.

The CJPA could accomplish precisely the opposite of its goal by assuring that less news gets to Californians than today. The just-released Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford makes clear that more than ever, citizens start their news journeys not with news brands but end up there via social media and search:

Across markets, only around a fifth of respondents (22%) now say they prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app — that’s down 10 percentage points since 2018…. Younger groups everywhere are showing a weaker connection with news brands’ own websites and apps than previous cohorts — preferring to access news via side-door routes such as social media, search, or mobile aggregators.

Tremendous value accrues to publishers from platforms’ links. By lobbying against the internet platforms that benefit them, news publishers are cutting off their noses to spite their faces, and this legislation hands them the knife.

In a prescient 1998 paper from Santa Monica’s RAND Corporation, “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead,” James Dewar argued persuasively for “a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy. Societies who regulated the printing press suffered and continue to suffer today in comparison with those who didn’t.” In my new book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I agree with his conclusion.

I fear that California, its media industry, its journalists, its communities, and its citizens will suffer with the passage of the CJPA.