Do It, Fuckers!
Google and Facebook threaten to shut off news if they have to pay for it. Let them.
People who grew up in past generations, when America had thriving newspaper and magazine industries, are often curious what happened to them. How did it come to be that every single little town had a healthy local newspaper with a staff of reporters regularly covering local news, and news magazines had bottomless expense accounts for lavish international reporting, and today, all that stuff seems to have mostly disappeared? It’s not as simple as saying “it went on the internet”—newspapers are on the internet too, but their incomes have crashed and they’ve laid off most of their staffs and they can barely cover a city any more. A quarter of newspapers in America have gone out of business since 2005, and that figure is always rising. How did the US news industry get so decimated, so fast?
The answer is that middlemen figured out how to take all the money out of the business. The biggest of those middlemen are Google and Facebook. If newspapers had been able to start publishing online but continue to make the same ad revenue that they had in print, everything would have been fine. Instead, Google and Facebook (and, increasingly, Amazon and Apple) figured out how to become the online portals that people used to get to the news, and to semi-monopolize the digital advertising industry, which left the actual news publishers with only a small fraction of the revenue that had been flowing to them in pre-internet days. Whereas local newspapers were once their own little local advertising monopolies, which made enough money to support news staffs even in small towns, the internet destroyed that model. What pays off in online advertising is scale. Rather than buying ads in the local paper, businesses could use Google and Facebook to place ads with far more targeted reach and wider scope. Hundreds of millions of people all across the world began using Google News and their Facebook feeds, which contain a wide mix of stories published by news outlets, as their go-to news sources. The tech platforms got the best of both worlds: They got to serve news up to the public as if they were publishers, and they got to reap the ad revenue from that audience, but they did not have to actually hire any reporters or do any journalism. Like sponges, they found a way to insert themselves between the audience and the media, and soak up the money that was flowing between them.
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This is a simplified version of the story (and I do NOT want tech people sending me nitpicky emails), but in essence, this is the answer to “What happened to all the nice local newspapers?” Consider the fact that Google’s parent company is worth more than $1.6 trillion, and the value of the entire US newspaper industry today is only around $20 billion. If Google wanted to, it could easily purchase every remaining paper in America and run them as nonprofits, thereby ensuring that local news doesn’t die out, and ensuring a continuing flow of news content for themselves, and earning a lot of good PR by appearing to be something less than vultures that have sucked journalism dry and thrown its corpse off a cliff. But they don’t do that.
If you thought that these trillion-dollar companies would feel some civic responsibility for keeping alive the practice of journalism because it is vital to a functional democracy, I say to you: ha. Instead, they are effectively doing the opposite. For years, people who have watched the tech platforms slowly killing the media industry have begged governments to intervene. Now, Canada is. They recently passed the Online News Act, which says that digital platforms like Google and Facebook must pay a small fee to news organizations when they share their links, and allows news outlets to collectively bargain with tech platforms. The law would basically make the tech companies share the revenue they have long been making from news with its actual creators. In response, Google and Facebook have announced that they will block news content in Canada, meaning that Canadian users of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google News may soon be completely unable to access or share links to news stories.
There is quite a bit to chew over here. First: These companies are just fucking greedy. The amount of money that they would have to pay in response to this law is not a material threat to their finances. Their real fear is that if this law (which is similar to one that passed in Australia in 2021, prompting the same reaction) gets established as a model then it will spread around the whole world, which would materially impact the existence of news as a clean and easy revenue source for these middlemen. This is just an economic power struggle, plain and simple. Affecting the judgment of the parties on both sides is the additional fact that serving up traditional news links is quickly becoming a less important part of these tech companies’ businesses than it used to be; their eyes are on AI much more than on whatever the hell the local newspaper industry is whining about. The longer social media exists, the more it creates its own universe of user-produced content that can fill its space, and the less it relies on people posting and discussing the latest New York Times stories. Still, for now, journalism is still a substantial enough factor for these companies to cause the hissy fit they are now throwing in response to being asked to pay to support it.
The irony, or the sickness, of this situation is that while the tech companies are vastly more financially valuable than the entire news industry, the news industry is vastly more socially valuable than these companies. The biggest value that tech platforms offer to society is convenience. They improve communications and provide a huge boost to efficiency on a global scale. This produces huge economic gains, and consequently they are so fucking rich. At this point, they are so deeply intertwined with every function of our personal and business and political lives that they cannot be removed any more than you can remove the veins from your own body. But the loss of most of the news media—something that we are very much headed towards—will produce awful consequences for our society: More misinformation, more corruption, a dumber and less informed populace, more conspiracy theories, more extremism, and a much greater ability of powerful people and institutions to enact their selfish will unchallenged. Existentially bad things. American democracy does not function in the absence of a healthy free press. Our system is built to rely on the press to keep every other part honest. If that goes away in order to make tech companies richer, I guarantee you that future generations are going to regret it.
So the proper response when these companies threaten to shut off news if we ask them to pay for it is: Go ahead, fuckers. Do it! Will this suck? Yes, at least in the short term. People will find that their go-to one-stop news sources don’t work any more. Publishers and journalists like me will find that it is much harder to share our work widely with the click of a button. This will cause dislocation in the near term. Some places will go out of business. Some writers will lose their jobs. Some people will just give up on reading news. I freely admit that this part will suck! But!
But! Remember that we are already on a path to the near-complete collapse of the news industry. Just more slowly. Without any changes in the current economic model, without any government regulations to create some sort of new revenue stream for news outlets, without any action that smashes the current system that allows middlemen to take the majority of the income that once went to the actual producers, the future of American journalism is a small number of national prestige outlets like the NYT and the total death of local news (which by definition can never have the scale to be financially successful in the current online ad market). Nobody alive today has seen what the absence of a functional news industry at the local and state level over a long period of time looks like. It will fuck a lot of things up, I promise you. The only winners will be rich people and crooks. We don’t want to go down that road.
There is still a demand for journalism. People want to read news. What we have to do is make sure that the money goes to the news industry rather than to tech platforms. So, play out the longer term consequences of Google and Facebook turning off news for entire countries or regions. After a period of disgruntlement and confusion, people will find other ways to access news. That demand will not disappear. People are capable of typing MYLOCALNEWSPAPER.COM into a browser rather than going to Google News every day. In time, the audience that was once soaked up by the tech platform sponges will flow around them and find the news they want once again. They will be aided in this by the publishers themselves, which will certainly be working overtime to promote themselves in new ways and help readers find their stories. The threats of the tech companies to turn off news are, ultimately, a bluff—even when they do it, they won’t turn off the news itself, or the demand for that news. And the product and its demand will inevitably find new paths to reach each other once again. And, happily, those paths will not be toll roads where everyone has to pay Google and Facebook for the privilege of reaching the place they want to go.
This is a nuanced issue and there are a lot of factors that drive the success or lack thereof of news publishers. But the big huge boulder in everyone’s path for the past two decades has been these tech platforms. Everyone should understand that there are only three basic choices: 1) We do nothing, let the journalism industry continue to wither, and watch the enormous tech companies walk away with little care at the end of it all, on to their next lucrative project, while civic society is left without one of its pillars; 2) We make the tech companies pay the journalism industry; or 3) We provide another funding stream for news, like direct government support. My opinion is that the best option is a combination of #2 and #3: taxing the tech companies and funneling that money into news. The Canadian law (and a similar state law currently being debated in California) doesn’t quite do that directly, but it is close enough to be a significant improvement on doing nothing. The muttered threats of the tech companies to take their algorithms and go home should not scare anyone too badly. These companies have made billions of dollars from this middleman scam. If we shut it down, they can make our lives a little bit miserable, for a little while, but that is all. Temporary pain is preferable to certain slower death. Fuck you, Google. If you’re so valuable to society, go cover a city council meeting yourself.
I have a new piece in In These Times about how to reform the structure of new union organizing in America in order to prevent unions from dying out just like local newspapers. I realize this does not sound that JAZZY when I describe it, but the stakes here for economic inequality and labor power and the long term viability of the American experiment are very high. My book, which will be published next year (and which I JUST finished the final edits for, yeahhhhh), is sort of a reported, exciting attempt to tackle this issue, but with a lot of color along the way. You can preorder my book here, and if you do, that would be great.
Reminder that I am out in the deep dark woods on a writer’s residency most of this month and I may be posting less frequently than usual here. Please bear with me.
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