The Monopoly-Go-Round

The JCPA is a good idea, but Congress must ensure it provides for local journalism not for more of the “Monopoly-Go-Round.”

A July appeal on the front page of my local newspaper, The Austin American-Statesman, shamelessly screamed for public assistance: “Tell your members of Congress to support the JCPA and save local news.” The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is a modest proposal meant to protect local papers from having their journalism pillaged by such thieving Big Tech monopolists as Facebook and Google. It would require them to start paying for news stories and other content they now essentially steal from local journalists, giving our hometown papers a better chance of survival in the critical public service of news delivery. Good!

But, uh-oh, here come SoftBank, Alden, Chatham et al, scheming to funnel future JCPA payments meant for local journalism straight up to their bank vaults. Bad! They’re trying to take us on a dizzying spin aboard the Monopoly-Go-Round, twisting a law intended to fight exploitation by tech monopolists into a tool enabling financial monopolists to tighten their stranglehold on local journalism. At a minimum, JCPA must be amended to mandate that any and all revenue it provides for local journalism actually stays local and pays for journalism.

The general claim of SoftBank and the other money syndicates is that most people no longer value print media enough to subscribe and sustain a broad network of local papers, so contraction, consolidation and homogenization are just good business practices. They add that they should be hailed as media heroes for salvaging some remnants of local journalism in their investment portfolios.

Before they break their arms patting themselves on the back, let’s note that, ONE, actual surveys of local people reveal that they do in fact value hometown newspapers and resent that theirs has been diminished or liquidated, feeling a deep loss of community power and connection; TWO, readers quit subscribing to these remnants because they’re nothingpapers, empty news calories that don’t inform, enliven or unify; and, THREE, the gross cuts the syndicates are making — even as they jack up prices — are not for the survival of the papers they own, but for the extravagant enrichment of themselves, the funds’ investor elite, who demand an untenable 30%-and-up annual return, rather than a more honest profit of around 8% to 10% that could allow for more top-quality journalism for America.

And there’s the rub. Maximization of profits for the very few (Monopoly-Go-Round) is wholly contrary to the greater good of maximizing news and democracy for the many. Independent, free-ranging journalism is an essential public necessity for a democratic people (which is why the one enterprise singled out in the Constitution for supreme protection is the free press). But town after town has now learned that the press is not free if theirs is just another profit center for hedge fund hucksters.

It’s a personal loss to have your local newspaper shut down (or just be reduced to a waste of paper), but the greatest loss is in civic power. Despite shortcomings, a decent newspaper is a community’s main repository of shared information, its broadest public forum for shaping and monitoring a common agenda and its principal outlet for exposing and rallying opposition to corporate and governmental corruption. No other medium does that. Sure, there’s the internet (so sketchy in so many ways) and there’s TV “news,” but come on — it’s not even deep enough to be called shallow, and the news snippets it does present are mostly taken from newspapers. Americans have lost a quarter of our local papers just since 2005, with an average of two more folding every week and nearly every survivor cutting back to a fraction of what it was.

Jim Hightower