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Newspapers Seek Government Protection. Congress Should Kill H.R. 2054

A well meaning piece of legislation is getting a hearing today in Congress. It is called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.

Local newspapers and a few members of Congress are convinced that Facebook and Google are killing local papers.

The law would allow newspapers to collectively prohibit Google and Facebook from sharing their content or, at least, require that these companies pay newspapers for the content they carry.

But what content from newspapers do Google and Facebook carry? They cover the minimal amount necessary to get someone to notice an article and click through to the local papers. The problem here is not that the social media giants are rebroadcasting the content, but that the local newspapers are not able to get people to click through to the stories.

This all goes back to newspapers never adapting to the digital age. They are seeking someone beside themselves to blame. Many newspapers from news organizations like, for example, McClatchy, all largely run the same syndicated news information. So one can click through and go to a newspaper in Georgia to see the content from the newspaper in California. McClatchy gets the revenue, not the local paper. Many of these companies have built awful, gross websites that are user unfriendly.

Other papers are single papers in large cities. Increasingly, they depend on clicks through from social media to get attention on their stories. To force Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. to pay them for the privilege of sending traffic to those papers is nuts. But that’s ultimately what they want.

The legislation fundamentally misunderstands how internet traffic works and it fundamentally misunderstands why newspapers are failing. The internet is not to blame for local newspapers woes except that they no longer have a monopoly and people are no longer dependent on them. Seeking government subsidy and protection is the wrong strategy. It is a strategy that suggests newspapers have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

H.R. 2054 may be well meaning. There may be no dispute that local news is dying. It may be true that this is bad for the country. But Google and Facebook are not to blame. Local newspapers never building a relationship with their readers and treating themselves as indispensable caused the problem.

Remember, the very same local newspapers blaming social media for their plight right now were only a few years ago blaming the internet and Craigslist for killing off the classified section, from which they got most of their revenue. Newspapers have never bothered to adapt because they’ve been so busy trying to find new companies to blame.

And here’s the truth — local news is not really dying. Local television and radio are doing okay. It is the print publications that never adapted to the digital age that are suffering and that’s no them, not Facebook and Google.

H.R. 2054 is misguided and just another sign that newspapers have never accepted their failures have most everything to do with themselves. Punishing Google and Facebook for having the audacity to send traffic to those newspapers is another example of the arrogance of newspapers that, seeing the digital iceberg ahead, assumed they’d never be sunk and did not have to steer differently – the very arrogance that is causing them to die out in the first place.

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