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Commentary: Support 'safe harbor' bill to help save local news

Local journalism is more important than ever. Over the past year, as the nation has moved through one major challenge after another — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the reignited social justice movement to the explosive 2020 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath — people have been turning to their local news publishers to learn how the changes happening around the world affect their daily lives.

While local news has experienced a readership boom, unfortunately, revenue to local news has been more of a bust. That’s because companies such as Facebook and Google routinely profit off of the content produced by news publishers. The duopoly earns 70% or more of every advertising dollar spent online, leaving publishers with the remaining pennies to help pay for news. That imbalance is part of the reason the news industry has lost more than 28,000 jobs since 2008, and why 1,800 communities have lost their local newspaper since 2004.

In South Carolina, 15 newspapers have shuttered since 2004, and newspaper circulation has declined by 23%. Twenty-three counties have only one local news outlet, and one county, Allendale, has no local newspaper at all.

This kind of loss is a detriment not only to the news industry, but to democracy. Each publisher that is forced to shutter means less information for South Carolina’s residents. But there is a solution: the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.

The bill would grant news publishers a limited “safe harbor” to negotiate with the platforms for better business terms to support journalism. Through the safe harbor, all publishers — big and small — would be able to join together to ask companies such as Google and Facebook for revenue-sharing terms that would permit them to continue providing their communities with the high-quality journalism they depend on.

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As highlighted by recent developments around the world, including the European Union and Australia, the world is moving toward a new and more equitable compensation system for publishers. Without fair compensation to publishers, news outlets can’t pay their journalists, and without journalists, Americans are at a much greater information disadvantage.

It is simply impossible for most individual news publishers to challenge the basic terms offered by the online behemoths. The platforms are much too big and much too influential.

If the safe harbor is passed, South Carolina publishers would benefit from better business arrangements with the tech companies, giving them what they need most to continue to give their readers the news they need most.

South Carolina’s publishers need their state’s U.S. senators and representatives to support high-quality journalism by sponsoring the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. It is only with their help that local news producers can continue to serve their communities and deliver to readers the kind of quality journalism they expect and rely on.

David Chavern is president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit representing nearly 2,000 news organizations and their multiplatform businesses.

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