How newspaper publishers can take on Silicon Valley duopoly

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg delivered the commencement address at Harvard last year.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg delivered the commencement address at Harvard last year.(Steven Senne/Associated Press/File)

PRESIDENT TRUMP’S HARANGUES against the “failing New York Times” and other newspapers, including this one, are troubling. The deep, daily reporting that only newspapers can muster has never felt so vital, and any White House effort to undermine it bears close watching.

But any newspaper publisher will tell you the greatest threat to the industry emanates not from Washington, but from Silicon Valley. Google and Facebook don’t do the painstaking work of developing sources and uncovering corruption. They don’t venture into war zones, or sit through late-night school committee meetings. But they do reap enormous profits from the newspaper articles that show up in your search results and news feeds.


The Google-Facebook duopoly now commands 60 percent to 70 percent of the digital advertising market, depending on the estimate. And the steady decline in newspaper advertising revenue has hollowed out newsrooms all over the country.

The only way to stop the bleeding is to give legacy media a stronger hand in its negotiations with the tech giants. And the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing about 2,000 national and regional newspapers, has a proposal.

The organization is asking Congress to carve out a limited exemption to antitrust law, allowing newspapers to band together and jointly negotiate with the Internet behemoths. Publishers still wouldn’t be on an equal footing with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin. But they would, at least, get a step up.

Job one would be getting a larger slice of digital advertising revenue, of course. But David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, points to other priorities, too.

Start with access to consumer data. Facebook offers newspapers and other media outlets vanishingly little information on the people clicking on their stories. But that kind of information is the lifeblood of the Internet. If newspapers are going to compete, they need more of it.


Branding is another problem. The tech giants make only muted reference to the media outlets that produce the journalism appearing on their sites. They should be displaying Washington Post and Minneapolis Star-Tribune logos more prominently. And they should be making it easy to subscribe to those publications too.

Google and Facebook complain that subscription widgets would harm the user experience. “What I always say about that,” Chavern says, “is it’s a great user experience at my local bar if I don’t have to pay. But it would not be a sustainable bar.”

Chavern says he’s finding more sympathy for an antitrust exemption on Capitol Hill than you might expect. Plenty of Republican lawmakers say they don’t like “the media.” But most have decent relationships with their local newspapers.

But if the push doesn’t get traction — and it’s entirely possible that it won’t — newspapers may have to take matters into their own hands: banding together, going to Google and Facebook with a set of demands, and daring the tech giants to file an antitrust action.

Something’s got to happen.

After the last election, it seems pretty clear that we can’t let Silicon Valley dictate the terms of our public debate. Facebook and other social media outlets gave Russian bots a free shot at our democracy. They allowed fake news to proliferate. We can do better than that. We must do better than that.