Level the playing field for small media and Big Tech

In the early days of the internet, the world welcomed the information superhighway, hailing it the great equalizer and embracing its promise.

Most of us thought we have innovation in technology that will decentralize information. It will empower voices and viewpoints overlooked by the gatekeepers of mainstream media.

We now do live, work, play and learn in a technocracy where everything we need to know is within reach that some imagined decades ago. But only two companies, Google and Facebook, control most of the infrastructure that brings that information to us. The duo are the chief engineers pre-determining how we get our information, from which sources and who gets compensated for it.

Google and Facebook have created their own playing field. And it is not even. Everyone can get on, but very few get rewarded.

Big Tech’s crowd-and-conquer approach leaves a news media landscape that is vulnerable to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Their dominance sucks the air out of the media economy and has given Google and Facebook a stranglehold on the online news and ad market that has allowed them to benefit from journalistic content without paying for it.

News publishers have seen ad revenues fall by more than 80% from 2005 and 2020, according to Pew Research Center. This dramatic decrease in industry-wide earning heightens racial inequities that were already disturbing.

Nowhere is this challenge felt more than in the front offices and newsrooms of the Black press and those of other publications run by minority owners serving America’s ethnic communities.

Many minority newspapers are acutely under-staffed and resourced, preventing them from providing the kind of comprehensive coverage that they once did. Pew also reports that five of the eight Black newspapers in the United States reporting recent circulation data saw their circulation drop by at least 10%. Only one paper had a circulation of over 50,000.

This grim reality affecting minority communities is urgent for several reasons.

First, people of color comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population yet remain underrepresented in mainstream newsrooms that often under-report or overlook issues of importance to their communities. People of color, particularly African Americans, are also woefully underrepresented in tech – less than 4% of Google and Facebook’s employees are Black.

Accordingly, mainstream outlets will not fully capture the intra-community dynamics that the Black press and minority-owned papers do, or effectively counter campaigns designed to disenfranchise people of color. For example, the Black press has historically countered disinformation campaigns intended to instigate racial hatred or discouraged African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

Second, Black and Hispanic Americans value local news. Our communities are more likely to say topics typically covered by local news outlets are important to us, such as jobs, commodity prices, crime, schools, traffic and transportation. Black Americans stand out when it comes to trust in local news organizations. We are more likely to believe information coming from local outlets than White Americans.

Third, the Big Tech duopoly not only reroutes advertising dollars away from traditional publications, but it is keeping new minority owned media channels from being developed, as founders don’t see a path to financial sustainability. They leverage behavioral data and use clever tactics to keep users on their sites as they limit publishers’ ability to monetize their content with shifting algorithms.

The only way to loosen Big Tech’s vice grip over our lives is robust antitrust enforcement and targeted legislation. The effort will require action from lawmakers in Congress, federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, statehouses and state regulators.

One of the most promising pieces of legislation is the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). The JCPA would allow print, broadcast or digital news companies to collectively negotiate with Google and Facebook to secure fair compensation for their journalism and help direct the flow of subscription and advertising dollars back to small and minority owned publishers.

While Big Tech occasionally distributes grants to minority owned press outlets, these outlets ought to be compensated consistently for the value they provide the platforms — not just at the whims of Big Tech’s generosity.

The JCPA is promising because it is designed to benefit small and medium-sized publications such as minority news outlets that have never enjoyed a proportional share of advertising revenue relative to their readership numbers. Legislation is never a be-all end-all, but the JCPA is an important step to ensure that minority media outlets finally get their fair share.

Our representatives in Congress should pass the JCPA and provide minority-owned papers with a level playing field, fulfilling the early promise of the Internet.

The majority of ethnic media publications are asking for opportunities to remain functional as independent for-profits because our work champions, the interests of the communities we serve and the ideals of our Democracy.

Regina Brown Wilson is executive director of California Black Media.

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