Courtney trumpets bill that would help preserve local news outlets

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, voiced enthusiastic support Friday for new legislation that seeks to preserve local newspapers and other struggling news outlets threatened by Facebook, Google and other online platforms that derive advertising revenue from content they neither pay for nor produce.

“Currently, the platforms are not paying for rights to the material" that news outlets post on their websites, Courtney said in a phone interview. “It’s a real threat to a viable, sustainable press.”

Courtney’s congressional colleagues Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Doug Collins, R-Ga., introduced H.R. 2054, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, this week during speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. Their bill would provide a temporary “safe harbor” for publishers of online content to collectively negotiate terms with online platforms that distribute their content.

Cicilline, who could not be reached Friday, chairs the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. Collins is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Courtney said the bill looks to antitrust law to balance the “outrageous disparity” in advertising revenues collected by local news outlets and the dominant online platforms. He called the approach “ingenious.”

“The platforms are raking in all the economic benefits (of the local outlets’ newsgathering operations),” Courtney said. “This would allow newspapers to band together to create a better playing field for negotiations. ... It relies on old-fashioned market forces to restore some flow of ad revenue back to the people who do the work.”

The bill would establish a 48-month “safe harbor” period that "only allows coordination by news publishers if it (1) directly relates to the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, or interoperability of news; (2) benefits the entire industry, rather than just a few publishers, and is non-discriminatory to other news publishers; and (3) is directly related to and reasonably necessary for these negotiations, instead of being used for other purposes."

In a news release, Courtney pointed to a Pew Research Center study that found that most Americans access news through Facebook and Google, which last year amassed more than $60 billion in online advertising — the majority of all online ad revenue. In contrast, annual revenue for news publishers has plummeted by $31 billion since 2006.

According to Pew, newsroom employment fell by 23 percent from 2008 to 2017, with most of the shrinkage occurring at newspapers, which shed 45 percent of their jobs over the same period.

Courtney cited a column by Paul Choiniere, The Day's editorial page editor, with the headline, "Sorry, news gathering is not free."

“Having been around for awhile, I remember when the Hartford Courant had five reporters in Washington. Now, it’s zero,” Courtney said. “The JI (Journal Inquirer) of Manchester has shrunken and so has The (Norwich) Bulletin and The Day. It’s happening right in front of our eyes.

“Trying to figure out a business model that works has been a real struggle in the age of digital news,” he said.

The News Media Alliance, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit representing more than 2,000 news organizations, hailed the Cicilline-Collins bill's introduction as “a great day for newsrooms across our nation.” The alliance has long advocated for legislation to address what it sees as an imbalance in the news publisher-platform relationship.

“Fair compensation for use of news content — from which the tech platforms benefit financially — will allow news publishers to continue to reinvest in quality journalism,” David Chavern, the alliance’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Courtney said he believes the alliance will “take this up with gusto” and push for passage of the bill.

“I think you’re going to see editorials across the country jumping on this legislation,” he said. “It should not be a partisan issue. Republican districts tend to be more rural, where these ‘news deserts’ (areas devoid of local news coverage) are becoming more widespread.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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