By Julian Do and Sandy Close l July 13, 2023
State lawmakers announced last week that a bill aimed at supporting California’s struggling media sector by forcing tech companies to pay for the news content they carry is being shelved until next year.
The California Journalism Preservation Act (AB 886) would require online platforms to pay news organizations a “journalism usage fee” comprised of a yet-to-be-determined percentage of their ad revenue, with the funds to be shared among media outlets large and small.
Australia passed just such a law in 2021, allowing the Australian government to force digital platforms into arbitration with news organizations to negotiate fees for using their content. The law has been credited with generating nearly $200 million in revenue for news agencies and the creation of hundreds of jobs in the sector.
Passage of AB 886 in California — the world’s 5th largest economy and home to many high-tech corporations — would be a game changer and could help propel similar efforts across the country and internationally. The bill’s failure, conversely, would be a huge setback for the media industry which in two decades has seen no viable commercial solution to the challenges it confronts.
EMS, as a non-profit organization representing a coalition of ethnic media outlets, supports AB 886, sponsored by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, for its intent to rectify the inherent imbalance in the current commercial relationship between news organizations and online platforms.
Its passage would provide a sustainable pathway for the media industry, with key features designed to ensure ethnic media outlets benefit from the new system.
Since the emergence of online search engines like Google and Yahoo and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, media outlets have followed big tech’s key selling point: by offering their content for free online and by leveraging tech’s digital ad systems, these outlets could expand audiences exponentially.
That increased traffic, the argument went, would generate revenues many times more than what they were earning from the traditional media business model based on print newspaper ads and subscriptions.
More than two decades later, this approach has not only laid waste to thousands of media outlets — some of which had been in existence for more than a century — but has also threatened the foundations of the wider media ecosystem itself.
In contrast, the oligopolist operators of search engines and online platforms, where most media outlets’ content is distributed, now control more than 90% of total digital ad revenue.
Against this background, AB 886 has these three main features:
- Operators of search engines and social media platforms like Google and Meta (parent company of Facebook and Instagram) are required to pay California-based media producers a monthly “journalism usage fee” set by arbitration.
- In turn, media publishers must retain a certain percentage of “usage fee” profits – 50% for newsrooms with five or fewer full-time staff and 70% for the rest of the industry – for re-investment in journalism jobs.
- Web scraping for calculating online traffic and “usage fee” payment must also include all content published in different languages by ethnic media.
Critics, including Google and Meta, have opposed AB 886 on the grounds that instead of helping revive community outlets and the news deserts they once covered, the bill would primarily benefit large and national media organizations with footprints in California.
But that argument, ironically, bolsters arguments made by supporters of AB 886 who say the bill would drive more money into the coffers of ethnic and community media. Many of these outlets are now operating in survival mode and hence can’t afford the investments needed to ramp up their online presence under a system that consistently yields negative returns and whose path is littered with thousands of media closures.
Revenues generated through AB 866 would allow struggling news organizations to invest more in increasing their digital capacity, boosting their online traffic, and reaping “real” positive returns.
Some argue that rather than force tech companies to subsidize local journalism, the government should instead create permanent journalism tax credits with special incentives toward non-profit news outlets that some see as the future of media writ large.
But a new report produced by the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Center on Technology Policy finds that similar programs in Canada and parts of the US have yielded at best mixed results, with unequal distribution of funds even as layoffs continued apace, and digital subscription subsidies for readers bearing little to no fruit.
There are also concerns that foundations — which are the major funders in the non-profit space — tend to favor digital-first and non-profit media outlets, while governments appear more interested in assisting legacy media whose sector still employs most working journalists.
That leaves ethnic media out in the cold.
Issie Lapowski co-authored the UNC report. In an interview with Nieman Lab, she said given the country’s current political polarization, receiving government support while preserving editorial integrity would be a tricky proposition.
There is in fact a significant body of research on the consequences of “dependency,” when media outlets become beholden to the state. Ethnic media publishers whose outlets serve immigrant communities are all too aware of this reality. It is precisely why many were motivated to create independent media outlets here in the US, to produce reporting free of government influence.
AB 886 offers a market-driven solution that ensures the media’s continued independence, providing a “usage fee” that rewards outlets based on performance. Additionally, the bill requires newsrooms to re-invest significant percentages of gained profits from the new system in hiring and retaining journalists.
Wicks said on Friday the decision to shelve the bill until next year is part of an effort to “ensure the strongest legislation possible.” A hearing in the fall of this year, meanwhile, will look at the issues addressed in the bill and explore similar legislation in countries including Australia, as well as Brazil and Indonesia, both of which are now considering similar legislation.
To be clear, AB 886 is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing the challenges confronting today’s media industry, which are many and varied. All options need to be on the table, and struggling news outlets will need to develop a diversified strategy of participating in those that best meet their needs, including the proposed “usage fee” system.
Yet the fact remains that all media — large, small, national or local, ethnic or mainstream — have not benefited from the digital media revolution in the way that big tech promised.
AB 886 aims to make good on that promise.
Julian Do is co-director of EMS. Sandy Close is the organization’s executive director.
Black News Publishers Watchful of Legislative Process as Online News Payment Bill Advances
Ethnic Media Services l June 7, 2023
By Edward Henderson | California Black Media
(CBM) – Black news publishers in California are watching lawmakers closely, anticipating that they will include provisions in a pro-journalism bill that would benefit their businesses. On June 2, the California Assembly passed Assembly Bill (AB) 886 with a vote of 46-6.
The bill would mandate that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google to pay a “journalism usage fee” to news organizations for sharing their content.
Assemblymember Buffy Hicks (D-Oakland) said she authored the bill with the goal of supporting California’s local news media outlets including ethnic media and small news publishers throughout the state.
“Free press is in our constitution, and it is at risk right now. That is what this bill is about,” Wicks told the Assembly. “Publishers deserve to be paid a journalism usage fee relative to how much their content is used on these platforms.”
According to the text of the bill, newspaper advertising has decreased by 66% over the past 10 years, and newsroom staff have declined 44%.
“Given the important role of ethnic media, it is critical to advance state policy that ensures their publishers are justly compensated for the content they create and distribute,” the bill’s language asserts.
AB 886, also known as the California Journalism Preservation Act, would require outlets receiving funds to use 70% of it on journalists and support staff. The bill was co-sponsored by the California News Publishers Association (CNPA), and the California Labor Federation (CLF).
“When local newspapers shutter, civic engagement goes down, corruption goes up, and the ability to combat disinformation erodes further,” CNPA wrote in a statement of support for the bill.
“Like all workers, journalists’ labor produces value. News workers win their fair share of it through collective bargaining with employers, as protected by the National Labor Relations Act. But, if that value is unfairly captured by third-party tech websites instead of the news publishers that employ journalists, these workers cannot bargain for pay that reflects their actual economic productivity. Meanwhile, newsroom jobs keep disappearing,” wrote CFL’s Mitch Steiger in a press release.
AB 886 also references a document written by the African American journalist and abolitionist Samuel Cornish in 1827. It highlighted the need for African Americans to have their own platform to express their grievances, advocate for their rights, and challenge racial inequality.
“We Wish to Plead Our Own Cause,” Cornish wrote and Wicks references in the bill language.
The bill language goes on to state, “This call to action spurred the establishment of numerous Black-owned newspapers and publications, solidifying the role of the Black press as a powerful tool for empowerment and social change, and laid the groundwork in our country for other ethnic media to plead their own cause.”
The Bill has faced opposition from multiple organizations such as the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the California Chamber of Commerce, CalMatters and Facebook’s parent company Meta.
According to Meta, news accounts for less than 3% of the content appearing on most Facebook users’ feeds. They also state that the media’s struggles were not in direct correlation with the growth of social media platforms.
“If the Journalism Preservation Act passes, we will be forced to remove news from Facebook and Instagram rather than pay into a slush fund that primarily benefits big, out-of-state media companies under the guise of aiding California publishers,” Meta said in a statement.
An analysis conducted by the tech industry-funded group Chamber of Progress shows that the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed law would be news outlets such as Fox News, the New York Post and Newsmax, all of which have faced accusations of spreading misinformation in the past.
According to the study, these outlets would receive four times more in revenue than major California news organizations, 151 times more than Latino news outlets in the state, 643 times more than newspapers located in the state’s worst news deserts and 844 times as much as California Black news outlets.
The bill will now be considered by the state Senate.