Local journalism is in a fight for its survival. Since 2004, the United States has lost approximately 2,100 newspapers − which accounts for a quarter of the nation’s total. And more than 200 of the country’s 3,142 counties no longer have a local paper, according to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
New legislation or regulation can help stem that tide.
Microsoft President Brad Smith testified before the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law about the future of journalism on March 12. During the hearing, Reviving Competition, Part 2: Saving the Free and Diverse Press, Smith advocated for protections for local news and journalism.
Here are some key takeaways from his written and spoken testimony on ways the government and tech companies can protect and strengthen journalism going forward.
In his testimony, Smith quoted former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who often observed that “all politics is local.”
“American democracy flourishes or withers at the local level. And if one thing is clear, it is that local democracy requires local journalism,” wrote Smith.
“City boroughs, suburbs and rural towns have long relied on local journalists to provide trustworthy information on the activities of City Hall, the school board and the police station.”
Smith also noted that local newspapers have always held a special place in local communities, providing “the bulk of our country’s original storytelling.” He further observed that, according to the Nieman Lab (part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University), local newspapers are responsible for more local reporting than television, radio and online-only outlets combined.
Smith underlined the importance of local news in his oral testimony, referring to the observations of one Florida resident:
“Of everything I have read about the state of journalism in America and its impact, nothing is more impactful to me than the statement of a citizen in Florida who talked about what had happened after they had lost their local newspaper. And he said, ‘After several years without the strong local voice, our community does not know itself.’ How do we maintain civilization, how do we protect democracy if our communities do not know themselves?”
Smith acknowledged that technology – which has done many good things for the world – has contributed to the decline of the news industry.
“It’s also perfectly clear,” he said, “that what was previously advertising revenue for newspapers has instead moved to advertising revenue for tech companies.”
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New legislation could help smaller publishers regain a foothold, said Smith − suggesting that the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act would give news organizations the ability to negotiate collectively with tech companies, including Microsoft, which is also an online news distributor.
Introduced in March 2021 by U.S. lawmakers, including Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Kennedy (R-LA) and Representatives David Cicilline (D-RI) and Ken Buck (R-NY), the JCPA is designed to help print, broadcast and digital news outlets to get paid a fair amount for their content when used by large tech gatekeepers, thus helping news organizations flourish.
Smith urged the committee to continue to look at the lack of competition in search and digital advertising and he said new ideas should be considered, including the kind of government intervention recently seen in Australia. “[It] would impose on tech companies an obligation to bargain in good faith, to avoid retaliation, to be transparent about their practices,” he said.
Microsoft endorsed Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, an innovative approach using mandatory bargaining to level the playing field between large tech gatekeepers and news organizations. It required large tech gatekeepers to negotiate payment with publishers for the news content they use. Microsoft has said it would also support similar legislation in other countries and is prepared to share revenue with news organizations.
“Journalism will have to continue to evolve, and tech companies like my own are going to have to continue to find new, creative ways so that journalism and technology can find some way to flourish together, in a way that’s not happening yet,” said Smith.