People don't take in the news the way they used to.
That's meant as a matter-of-fact statement, not a moral judgment, and it's not universally true, of course. Many folks do still have a paper delivered, or pick up and read a copy they find lying around, or absorb a broadcast on radio or TV. In so doing, they are exposed not just to the journalism but to the advertising that helps news organizations afford to produce it.
But these days many news consumers — including the traditionalists — get their reports alternatively through links their friends have shared on social media or through headlines produced by a web search. Maybe they click through to the website of the organization that originated the article, thus triggering the revenue arrangement mentioned above, or maybe they don't. Maybe they get everything they want without leaving, say, the Google or Facebook platforms. Thus, the business of news, not just the reporting and dissemination of it, is disrupted as much as any endeavor is by 21st-century technology.
There's value in this nonetheless for all parties. For news consumers, it's access to a wide range of content; for news providers, it's exposure to a broad audience; for the Big Tech companies, it's the monetization power of being a central stop for nearly the whole of society.
But only one party in this triad — the news providers — is laying out the substantial resources necessary to produce the content. And only one party — not the news providers, nor the consumers — has the size and leverage to set the broad terms of monetization. A small local newspaper in rural Minnesota could not bargain individually with Facebook or Google and succeed. Even a metropolitan daily like the Star Tribune could not. But collectively, they could.
That's where a bipartisan proposal in Congress comes into play. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — also known as the Safe Harbor Act — is being reintroduced after failing to gain traction in previous years. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is a cosponsor, along with John Kennedy, R-La., in the Senate, and David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo., in the House. Klobuchar and Cicilline are chairs of their chambers' respective antitrust subcommittees, which is pertinent, because the first step in this process has to do with antitrust law.
Specifically, the proposal would establish a four-year period — the "Safe Harbor" — during which news content providers could negotiate collectively with the large online platforms, perhaps jointly withholding content for leverage. Normally, that might flirt with collusion. That it's being considered is an acknowledgment of the overwhelming power Big Tech itself has accrued in a relatively short existence.
If the legislation is approved, what then? The open window would provide an opportunity for publishers of all sizes to make more equitable arrangements under the existing, too-convoluted-to-explain system of access to online content, traffic and revenue, and perhaps ultimately devise a method of compensation from Big Tech. In short, it's a plan for the sustainability of news origination. Consider, as a parallel, deals the recording and film industries have reached with companies like Spotify and Netflix.
You've taken note, no doubt, that we on the Star Tribune Editorial Board are advocating for a proposal from which we would potentially benefit. That we don't deny. But there's something in it for you, too. Society benefits from having broad attention paid to its laws, its leaders, its culture. For that it needs — in good health — the local news.