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Stop the Presses? Newspapers in the Digital Age

CRS Report – Stop the Presses? Newspapers in the, Digital Age, Updated May 24, 2023: “During the past 20 years, more than 200 local daily newspapers have either reduced thei rpublication frequency or ceased publishing altogether. Among those that survived, many employa fraction of the journalists that they did at the turn of the 21st century, and many publish fa rfewer original, local, and investigative news stories than they did previously. As a result, in order to get local news, thousands of U.S. communities rely on “ghost newspapers” that are shells of their former selves and may rarely employ full-time professional local journalists. Researchers report that, among other societal effects, the lack of a daily newspaper to monitor local governments and publicly traded companies can lead to increased financing costs to make up for investors’ lack of trust. In 2000, daily newspaper industry revenue peaked at $89 billion, adjusted for inflation in 2020 dollars. Twenty years later, the revenue had fallen by 80%. Although some large, national newspapers continue to thrive, the newspaper industry as a whole has contracted. Websites and mobile apps enabling individuals to access news without a subscription have increased competition for readers and advertising. Between that 20-year period, revenue gains from online newspaper advertisements (from $0 to $3.1 billion) have not replaced revenue losses from print newspaper advertisements. Some technology companies both compete and collaborate with newspaper publishers for online advertising revenue. For example, in addition to competing with newspapers’ websites for display advertising revenue, Google sells ad spaces (i.e., areas on websites/mobile apps set aside for online advertisements) on behalf of online publishers. Likewise, Google buys ad spaces on behalf of companies seeking to market goods or services to consumers with advertising (i.e., advertisers). For each step of the process—known as the ad tech stack—Google earns commissions from both buyers and sellers. In January 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice joined eight states in filing a lawsuit against Google, alleging that the company is violating antitrust laws by engaging in unlawful conduct to monopolize the ad tech stack. An additional 16 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico filed a similar suit in 2021. In January 2021, a judicial panel combined this suit with multiple suits filed by newspaper publishers, advertisers, and others. Google claims these allegations mischaracterize its business and the degree of competition within the ad tech stack. In addition, some online platforms—such as news aggregators (e.g., Apple News and Google News) and social media (e.g., Facebook)—can both enhance and diminish the ability of newspaper publishers to reach viewers. By acting as intermediaries between newspapers and their readers, these online platforms may increase consumers’ awareness of newspapers’ websites and prompt consumers to visit them. Alternatively, the headlines, snippets (small portions) of articles, and photographs displayed by these online platforms may dissuade consumers from visiting newspaper publishers’ own websites. This may impede the newspapers’ ability to collect data about their readers and generate revenues from their websites/mobile apps via subscriptions and advertising. The Copyright Act generally prohibits online platforms from distributing full articles from newspaper publishers without their express consent. Courts determine whether a third party’s use of copyright material violates this law on a case-by-case basis. In June 2022, the U.S. Copyright Office published a report titled Copyright Protections for Publishers at the request of several members from the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The report assessed the viability of establishing “ancillary copyright” protections for press publishers that would require online news aggregators to pay publishers for using excerpts of their content. The Copyright Office did not recommend amending copyright laws for this purpose, noting that stakeholders who filed comments with the office emphasized that the publishers’ challenges were due more to competition issues rather than copyright issues. Some Members of 118th Congress have introduced bills that may help newspaper publishers. For example, the Advertising Middlemen Endangering Rigorous Internet Competition Accountability Act (S. 1073) would impose certain restrictions related to the ad tech stack. Online advertising revenues that would otherwise accrue to advertising technology firms could flow to the newspaper publishers who sell advertising on their papers’ websites. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2023 (S. 1094) would potentially increase the relative bargaining power of newspaper publishers.”

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