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George Skelton: News business needs help in California. Is government the answer?

George Skelton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Newspapers are dying. That’s old news. What’s new is that in California, they may get some state government life support.

There’s state legislation brewing that would force the largest internet platforms — like Google — to kick in money to help save journalism. These platforms are the principal villains, after all, in the downfall of so many news outlets.

It’s not only newspapers that are in perilous decline. It’s much of news reporting — for print, broadcast and even digital.

In financial jeopardy is the profession of gathering factual information that citizens need in order to hold their elected representatives and governments accountable — in Washington, Sacramento and every city and little town.

Robust journalism is the essential component of a healthy democracy. Weak journalism leads to a sick democracy.

Here’s a stark example of what’s happening today as misinformation fills the communications void left by the weakening of factual journalism:

Millions of Americans actually believe Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. There is no credible evidence for that poor-loser fabrication. But Trump followers ignore declining objective news outlets and reaffirm their beliefs in echo chambers such as Fox News.

Most government and political writers, by nature, are driven by the desire to cut through the bull and provide the public with straight facts written in an understandable way. If there’s an agenda, it’s not ideological. It’s to get on the front page or the top of the website.

But news reporting is a declining profession because, traditionally, it has been funded mostly by advertising. That’s collapsing because of the internet.

Basically, the big internet platforms gobble up news outlets’ products and work without paying for it and build their own ad programs around the heisted articles. Or they just rip off the info and create their own posts. This is the scary future with AI.

Newspaper advertising has dried up. And increasingly because of the platforms’ actions, the revenue isn’t being replaced by internet ads.

Also, when you tap into Google to buy a pair of shoes online, your data are collected by the platform and sold to other shoe companies. Soon you’re being inundated online with shoe ads. And the shoe outfits see no reason to place ads in a newspaper or on local TV.

Advertising money to pay reporters’ salaries has been hemorrhaging for years. Roughly two-thirds of California journalists have lost their jobs in the last two decades. More than 100 Times newsroom staffers were laid off in January.

To their credit, some legislators are attempting to stand up to the powerful platforms and toss a lifeline to media outlets.

Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat, is pushing a bill, AB 886, similar to laws enacted in Australia and Canada. It would require large platforms to pay news outlets for their products. Fees would be set by arbitration. News outfits would be required to spend at least 70% of the money on reporters.

The bill passed the Assembly last year but hasn’t moved in the Senate.

Key lawmakers have agreed to pass something this summer, but haven’t decided what. They’re trying to weave together legislation that would attain a difficult two-thirds legislative vote, be acceptable to the big platforms and gain Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The governor has been mum.

 

The quartet are Wicks, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Umberg (D-Orange), new Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) and Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), the author of a second journalism rescue bill.

“We’ve experienced the hollowing out of newsrooms in epic proportions and that has significantly eroded oversight of government,” says Glazer, a former political press secretary.

I asked the veteran pol whether he’d noticed a decline in state Capitol coverage. “Absolutely,” he replied. “There are great reporters. But the volume of actions taking place in the Capitol that get no scrutiny is extraordinary.”

In the last two decades, the size of the Capitol press corps has shrunk — and at the Times bureau — by two-thirds.

Glazer’s bill, SB 1327, would impose a “data extraction mitigation fee” — a sales tax — on platforms that reap more than $2.5 billion annually from advertising to Californians. It would snag Google, Amazon and Meta and generate $1 billion annually.

Forty percent would go to schools — a move that helps build political support for the bill.

Half — $500 million — would provide tax credits for reporters’ salaries. The credits would range from 30% of salaries for full-time news employees at The Times and other medium-to-large papers, and up to 55% for new hires at tiny papers with a maximum of five staffers.

I called the publisher of the small Ojai Valley News, a printed weekly that has two full-time reporters and four half-time staffers.

“Something is really needed to rescue independent newspapers,” says publisher Laura Rearwin Ward. “If it’s done right, it could provide better wages for reporters. I don’t see why reporters should live in poverty. This business can’t afford to pay them a fair wage. They’re doing it for love.”

I also called the head honcho at the other end of the newspaper spectrum: Chris Argentieri, president and chief operating officer at the L.A. Times, which has a news staff of around 400.

“We produce a lot of very important intellectual property that goes around the world,” Argentieri told me. “It makes no sense that a company can take our product and not compensate us for it.”

He added that news organizations aren’t big enough to deal with the powerful platforms, and the platforms won’t negotiate. “Government is the only entity that can take on Google,” he says.

I asked him about the future of newspapers. His formula: A good product people will buy, digital subscriptions, philanthropic help and public sector support.

The two bills pending in the Legislature will probably — hopefully — be merged in some fashion.

Unless government confronts the modern-day robber barons, it could be “-30-” for much of legitimate news reporting. That’s the old news copy sign for “the end.”


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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