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People seeking government protections from market competition generally tell a story about the nobility of their work and how society suffers if the protection-seekers face competition. The Bell System monopoly argued that rural America would lose telephone service if MCI was allowed to provide long distance service. Google, Facebook et al. argued that net neutrality regulations were critical to preserving the internet. Rivals to these tech companies are making similar arguments for platform neutrality, arguing that neutralizing successful tech companies is critical for innovation and even the survival of democracy.
Now journalists are seeking to stop competition. The Save Journalism Project wants to preserve a business model that customers no longer want. According to the project website, “Over the last 10 years, newspaper newsrooms have declined in size by 45%, and in 2019 so far, the media has shed more than 2,400 jobs.”
The project participants argue that protecting their old way of life is noble and the situation dire:
High-quality journalism has been recognized since America’s founding as fundamental to the functioning of our democracy. But now, journalism in America is facing an existential threat from the monopolistic control of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple. Big tech’s dominance over the digital advertising market and their unrivaled capacity to monetize its platforms are having drastic effects on journalism as a whole.
We are news publishers, news gatherers, journalists, news photographers, content creators, media influencers, activists, advocates, and organizers. We are defending democracy, fighting to preserve free press, and working to save journalism in the age of big tech.
The members are right that journalism is important — so important that it receives special constitutional protections from government control. But like most seekers of protection from competition, they have incorrectly defined their problem.
The old journalism business model is fading away because large numbers of readers and viewers prefer to spend time with Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc. than with specialized journalism outlets, including online newspapers. Traditional media — which includes news media — once enjoyed a near monopoly for advertising dollars. But with the tech companies winning the competition for people’s time and attention, they are also winning the competition for advertisers who want to reach people.
The project’s effort to “steer the public conversation around the negative effects of Big Tech” will only make things worse for journalism because it promotes at least two false beliefs: (1) The old business model was somehow more moral than the tech business model; and (2) The old way of life can be preserved.
Journalism needs new business models. One possible approach is direct competition for people’s time and attention. It might be tempting to try to imitate current platforms, but this won’t be successful. Each of today’s successful tech platforms defeated rivals by doing more for customers: Facebook gave more interaction and exclusivity (initially) than did Myspace, and Google provided easier access to the most valuable websites than did Yahoo. Journalists that want to compete for time and attention will have to identify important weaknesses in the leading tech platforms and exploit them.
Another possible approach is to become part of the value side of the existing platforms. In almost any platform, there are those who make the platform valuable and those who pay for that value. On Facebook, for example, the users provide value and the advertisers pay for it. On some video game platforms, the game writers create value and users pay for access to it. To become part of the value side of platforms, journalists will have to create a new value proposition for readers and viewers, or for platforms.
A variation on the second approach would be creating new brand value. In some instances readers and viewers appear to be indifferent as to who originates a news item, so brand doesn’t matter. But at other times they have strong preferences for or aversions to particular outlets, such as The New York Times or Fox News. Clearly people find value in journalism that reinforces pre-existing opinions. Can a journalism outlet create unique value that does something other than feed a political divide?
The way forward for journalists is uncertain. Otherwise, there would be no controversy. But we do know that stirring government officials to rise up against tech rivals will tie journalism to a decaying business model.
(Disclosure statement: Mark Jamison provided consulting for Google in 2012 regarding whether Google should be considered a public utility.)
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