Without newspapers, the happenings in towns and cities across the United States largely will go unreported in broader society.
Individuals can post a photo of the wreck they saw driving home from work. People might express outrage at government spending or praise a football team’s winning ways. But the day of the independent journalist recording the events of a particular place, as well as following up with the rest of the story, is fading as newspapers close up shop without a replacement.
The power of the First Amendment as protection for free speech becomes diminished as that happens; there is no free press once the press has disappeared.
Should that happen, there will be no local reporter staying late at the school board meeting to cover the vote on the basketball coach’s job. There will be no watchdogs at the state Capitol making sure legislators are not making deals in secret. There will be no one to investigate whether the contract the county gave the asphalt company was awarded correctly. There will be more news deserts — places where local news is not covered and where people use social media to pass along unchecked and unverified stories.
Such a scenario is hardly farfetched, either. A Pew Research Center analysis shows that from 2008-18, 25 percent of journalism jobs in the United States vanished. Newspapers led the way in shedding jobs, losing 47 percent of positions between 2008 and 2018. Some 2,000 newspapers have closed or merged since 2004, leaving whole communities without news coverage.
In such a world, the very basic premise of democracy — that citizens will be informed participants in their government — is at risk. Instead of finding out what the city council is doing by reading it in the newspaper, citizens are left in the dark.
Online journalism is increasing, but not fast enough to make up for vanishing print newsrooms. And the journalists who do remain, by the way, have to watch as their stories are posted and shared online, without receiving a penny for their efforts.
That’s why it is essential that the journalists who do the work reporting and writing stories, taking photographs and fact-checking information aren’t simply source material for people posting to Facebook or Twitter. No, the companies that feed off the work of journalists need to start paying for its use.
But big giants Google and Facebook have escaped having to pay for stories and pictures, meaning they benefit with little cost. They also are make money by selling advertising, using the free content pirated from newspapers.
Meanwhile, newspapers — already reeling from the advertising losses in classifieds, real estate and small businesses — struggle to stay in business. While local newspapers compete with tech giants, support at home always is appreciated — that can include everything from subscribing to a newspaper, supporting advertisers, becoming an advertiser or purchasing classified ads.
At the national level, the move by Congress to exempt news organizations from antitrust laws holds promise. With such an exemption, publishers together could negotiate with Google and Facebook over how articles and photos are used online, not to mention that all-important matter of being paid.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has agreed to back the bill, which would grant publishers a four-year antitrust exemption to come to a financial deal with tech giants. The bill has support across the aisles, too, with seven Senate backers. It was introduced by Sens. John Kennedy, R-La., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Similar House legislation was introduced by U.S. Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Doug Collins, R-Ga.
The days of a booming newspaper industry might be past and the likely online only future still uncertain. But for the present, granting this antitrust exemption would allow newspapers and news organizations to be paid for work by which others profit. That, after all, is only fair.