Senator Amy Klobuchar’s oxymoronically titled Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — it might better be named the Journalism Lobby Blackmail Bill — was just dealt a kick to the kidneys by a confused Ted Cruz amendment. It is delayed but not dead. It is still wrong-headed and dangerous and here I’ll examine how.
As ever, Mike Masnick does stellar work picking apart the bill’s idiocy and impact in detail. In summary, the JCPA would require big internet companies — Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, though perhaps not the incredibly shrinking Facebook — to negotiate with midsize newspaper publishers. Freed from antitrust, the publishers may band together and demand payment for linking to their news. Yes, linking to their news. The value platforms bring in terms of promotion, distribution, and audience is not a factor in these negotiations. If agreement cannot be reached, talks go to a co-called arbitration process and the platforms can be forced to carry and pay for publishers’ content.
Stop right there. That government would force anyone to carry anyone else’s speech is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Compelled speech is not free speech. Keep in mind that the extremist right in Congress is dying to concoct ways to force platforms to carry their noxious speech; Klobuchar et al are paving a way for them. That government would force anyone to pay to link to others is a fundamental violation of the principles of the internet. Links are free. Links are speech. That government would insert itself in any way into journalism and speech is simply unconstitutional.
Let us now consider the wider context of this legislation and where it goes wrong.
Newspaper publishers do not deserve payment
God did not grant newspaper publishers the revenue they had. They chose not adapt to the internet; I spent decades watching them at close range. Competitors offered better, more efficient and effective vehicles for advertisers, who fled overpriced, inefficient, monopolistic newspapers at first opportunity. Readers, whose trust in news has been falling since the ’70s, also fled. Welcome to capitalism, boys.
Today, most newspaper chains in America are controlled by hedge funds. I briefly served on digital advisory boards for one American and one Canadian company controlled by the hedgies and witnessed what they did: selling every possible asset, cutting costs to the marrow, and stopping all investment in innovation. The JCPA offers no real means of accountability to assure that platform money would go to journalism serving communities’ needs, not straight into the pockets of the hedgies. (The JCPA shares that problem with Rupert Murdoch’s similar blackmail bill in Australia.)
Journalists should not be lobbyists
I am appalled that legacy journalistic trade organizations — led by the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America, recently merged with the former Magazine Publishers Association)— have turned into lobbyists, cashing in news’ political capital and engaging in conflict of interest in the name of protectionism. Newspapers exist to stand independent of power in government, not beggars at its trough. Journalists themselves should rise up to protest what their publishers have ganged together to do: to sell their souls.
Newspapers have a long history of antitrust
This shameful behavior of publishers is not new. When radio emerged as print’s first competitor, papers did everything possible to prevent it from competing in news. Here are a few paragraphs recounting that episode from my upcoming book with Bloomsbury, The Gutenberg Parenthesis.*
In Media at War, Gwynth Jackaway chronicled American newspapers’ opposition to broadcast in a tale of defensiveness and protectionism that would be reprised with the arrivals of television and the internet. “Having been presented with a new technology, contemporary actors voice their concerns about how the new medium will change their lives, and in so doing they reveal their vulnerabilities,” she wrote…. Newspaper publishers tried to disadvantage their new competitors, strong-arming radio executives to agree to abandon news gathering, to buy and use only reports supplied by three wire services, to limit news bulletins to five minutes, and to sell no sponsorship of news. Their agreement also prohibited commentators from even discussing news less than twelve hours old (a so-called “hot news” doctrine the Associated Press would try to establish against internet sites as late as 2009). The pact fell away as wire services and station-owning newspapers bristled under its restrictions.
Print publishers tried other tactics. They threatened to stop printing radio schedules in their newspapers, but readers protested and radio won again. They lobbied to have radio regulated by the federal government and then unironically maintained that radio companies under government control would be unreliable covering government. The newspaper press tried to have radio reporters barred from the Congressional press galleries. They called radio a “monopolistic monster” and lobbied for a European model of government control of the airwaves. They blamed radio for siphoning off advertising revenue, though the Great Depression was more likely to blame for newspapers folding or consolidating in the era. They also lobbied for the government to limit or ban advertising on radio.
All their protectionism was cloaked in self-important, sacred rhetoric, with publishers accusing radio of manifold sins. Radio, they said, spread loose statements and false rumors: fake news. Radio “filched” and “lifted” news from newspapers. Radio seduced the public with the human voice to exploit emotions, to “catch and hold attention,” and to excite listeners. Will Irwin, a muckraking print journalist, wrote in his book Propaganda and the News: “The radio, through the magic inherent in the human voice, has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creating emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts.” Radio was “a species of show business, with overtones of peddling and soap-boxing.” Editor and Publisher maintained that “the sense of hearing does not satisfy the same intellectual craving as does the sense of reading” and the editor of American Press claimed that “most folks are eye-minded. They get only impressions through their ears; they get facts through their eyes.”
“Using the doomsday approach that so often accompanies the invocation of ‘sacred’ values,” wrote Jackaway, “they warned that the values of democracy and the survival of our political system would be endangered” if radio took on the roles of informing the electorate and serving a marketplace of ideas….
“Never,” said Jackaway, “is there the admission that public opinion might be manipulated by the printed word as well as the spoken word, or any recognition that by attempting to control radio news the press was actually infringing upon the broadcasters’ freedom of expression.”
Sound familiar? This is the same industry that today wants to be excused from antitrust law and Klobuchar et al are doing its bidding.
Government must not license and limit journalism
The JCPA sets a definition for news organizations eligible for its benefits and thus defines and de facto licenses journalists. Beware: What government giveth government may take away.
To avoid accusation that the bill would transfer money from big tech to big media, the JCPA sets a limit of 1,500 employees. It also sets a floor of $100,000 revenue. Thus, many are excluded. In our entrepreneurial program at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, we train independent journalists to serve communities and markets; they are too small. Our Center for Community Media and its Black, Latino, and Asian Media Initiatives work with a wide array of news organizations serving communities; many of them are too small. LION, the wonderful association serving local news organizations, says 44 percent of its members are too small.
These newcomers and publishers of color are the real innovators in journalism, not the old, tired, failing, incumbent newspapers. They are left out of the JCPA. The JCPA is aimed at companies whose papers are, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, just right — that is, the ones controlled by the hedge funds who pay the lobbyists.
The help platforms should give
I am all for technology companies helping the cause of news. In full disclosure, my school receives funds from various of the technology companies to fight disinformation, to independently study the internet, to train journalists in the new skills of product, to train community news organizations in business innovation. For years, I’ve attended Newsgeist, an event started by the Knight Foundation and Google, and there I began what is now the tradition of running a session asking, “What should Google do for news?”
Forcing payments from technology companies as this bill and others elsewhere would do is no business model. It’s blackmail. What we need instead is help to develop new models. Google does that with subscriptions and YouTube players offering monetization. Facebook used to do that in various programs but has thrown up its hands and given up on news (I frankly do not blame them). Apple and Microsoft send audience to news. Jeff Bezos saved The Post. We need more of this kind of help. JCPA does nothing to make news sustainable.
Should news even be copyrighted?
The legislation in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, as well as Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, and the EU’s resulting Article 15 are all attempts to extend copyright.
In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I also write about the origins of copyright. Note well that at the start, in the Statute of Anne of 1710 and in the first American copyright laws, news was explicitly not included. Not until 1909 in the United States did copyright law include newspapers, but even still, according to Will Slauter in Who Owns the News?, some still debated whether news articles, as opposed to literary features, were protected, for they were the product of business more than authorship.
The first, best government subsidy newspapers received was a franking privilege from the Post Office, starting in 1792, which allowed publishers to exchange editions with each other for the express purpose of copying each others’ news. This, too, from my book: “Newspapers employed ‘scissors editors’ to compile columns of reports from other papers. Editors would not complain about being copied because they copied in turn — but they would protest and loudly about not being credited…. It is ironic that newspapers — which since their founding in Strasbourg in 1605 have been compiled from news created by others — today complain that Google, Facebook, et al steal their property and value by quoting headlines and snippets from articles in the process of sending them readers via links. The publishers receive free marketing.”
I came to learn that copyright was created not to protect creators. Instead, copyright turned creation into a tradable asset, benefitting the publishers and producers who acquired rights from writers.
Just as a thought experiment, instead of extending copyright as so many legacy publishers in league with legislators wish to do, let us imagine what journalism might be today without copyright.
Without copyright, news organizations might not concentrate, as they do now, on the notion of journalism as a product to be restricted and sold to the privileged who can afford it. They are returning news to what it was before the printing press, when it was contained in expensive, exclusive newsletters called avvisi. Meanwhile, disinformation, lies, and propaganda will always fly free.
Without copyright, journalists might see news as a service that individuals and communities could choose to support — as they do public radio, The Guardian, and countless newsletters — because it is useful to them.
Without copyright, journalists might then concentrate on creating service of original value rather than employing digital scissors editors to rewrite each others’ stories into trending clickbait to make their own content to fill their own pages to attract their own SEO and social links to feed ever-decreasing programmatic CPMs.
Without copyright, they might turn all that wasted journalistic labor and talent loose on watching, reporting on, and holding accountable the politicians they are instead now lobbying.
Without copyright and the Gutenberg-era notions of content, property, and product, journalists might also feel freer to collaborate with the public, rather than speaking and selling to the public. Journalists might come to center journalism in the community rather in themselves, as we teach in our Engagement Journalism program at Newmark.
Without copyright, journalism might no longer be seen as a widget to be used as a wedge but instead a contributor to the quality of public discourse.
Do I want to get rid of copyright for news? Actually, yes, I do. I know that is not going to happen. But I can at least beg my legislators — I am looking at you, Cory Booker — not to extend and mangle copyright in the service of hedge funds and failed newspaper monopolists. Instead, let us find ways and means to support collaboration and innovation to improve news.
* The Gutenberg Parenthesis is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in June. You can be assured I would be sending you to a preorder link now if it existed, but it won’t until November. Watch this space.