Government Subsidies and Guilt Money from Social Media Giants Won’t Solve the Local News Crisis; A Level Playing Field Would
The lack of high-quality, objective local news outlets is a cause for great concern. On the local level, residents are not adequately informed and therefore are largely uninvolved in their communities and their local governance. Meanwhile, disinformation and misinformation spreads as more and more people rely on social media, forums and partisan news sites for their news and information.
Recently, federal legislation has been introduced to help “save” local news, while Facebook and Google have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support local news. However, government subsidies and financial contributions from social media companies will not save local news. What would save local news is a level playing field.
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was recently introduced in Congress and would provide tax credits and other incentives for people to subscribe to local newspapers, donate to local news nonprofits, to advertise with local news outlets and for publishers to hire local journalists.
While this likely would help the local news industry, government subsidizing media will not fix the root cause of the problem: the playing field is stacked against local news publishers. In addition, government support of media raises questions as to journalistic ethics given that journalists need to be independent but if they are dependent on the government for subsidies, their independence may be questioned.
Facebook and Google have each invested in initiatives that include grants, programs to encourage people to start local news sites, training, and other forms of support. These resources have enabled a few dozen local news outlets to form and others to stay afloat.
However, when you look at the scale of the problem — more than 1,800 communities in the United States without a local newspaper or local news site — the efforts have not had the necessary impact. Beyond that, local news should be and can be sustainable without funds from social media companies.
There needs to be fairness on the content side of the business.
Social media companies only show posts to a small percentage of Facebook users — this includes posts from news organizations. This limits the reach of news organizations and their site traffic.
News organizations can pay to have their post seen by more people on social media outlets through post boosting and ads, but many do not have the budget to do so, particularly on the local level.
In Australia, after a new law passed that would force social media giants to negotiate with news publishers and pay them for using news on their platforms, Facebook and Google agreed to pay for such privileges. However, these kinds of partnerships and deals have largely been made with big publishers leaving most small, locally owned publications out in the cold.
While Google and others say that they have done a lot to stop the stealing of content from content creators, content is routinely being lifted by other websites, reducing site traffic for the original creators. Oftentimes, social media users post the text from articles or a screenshot of the article as their post, with no penalty for doing so, depriving the news outlet of that traffic.
In addition, currently, social media and other publications are allowed to aggregate content from original content creators, with some taking more content than others before providing a backlink to the original source, reducing site traffic for the original creators. Some do not even provide a backlink, but merely name the source, which, for an online publication, does it no good.
Facebook and other social media giants have enabled and encouraged the creation of Facebook groups where disinformation and misinformation run rampant. Meanwhile, the Facebook group admin works to make their group the go-to-place in town for all residents, directly competing with a local news publisher for the very audience the local news site needs to survive and thrive. Often, posts providing links to legitimate news publications are refused or deleted by the Facebook group page admin in an effort to control the news and the message, further undermining the success of the local news publication.
These are just some of the issues that, if solved, could create more equity on the content side of the news publishing business.
Unfortunately, these solutions cannot be legislated. They need to be initiated by the social media companies themselves.
Those companies have no incentive to make these changes. Their hand needs to be forced. Here is where the government can take action. Unfortunately, the federal government is mired in dysfunction and partisanship. The silver lining is that both political parties are upset with the social media companies, albeit for different reasons. Perhaps common ground can be found on this front but don’t hold your breath.