Is history repeating itself? I have concerns.

Gov. Kathy Hochul presents the Fiscal Year 2025 Executive Budget in the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 16. Photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul presents the Fiscal Year 2025 Executive Budget in the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Jan. 16. Photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul
Mike Groll

We are witnessing a rush of legislation in Congress and states purporting to rescue news. New York just enacted a tax credit for full-time journalists. California and Illinois are considering versions of the often-delayed federal Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). Illinois’ Senate passed a waiting period for newspaper sales and funding for journalism scholarships. Wisconsin legislators introduced bills to provide a tax credit for news subscriptions and establish a granting authority like New Jersey’s state-funded Civic Information Consortium

I have concerns. 

I will always worry about government intercession in speech — and especially news. I am deeply disturbed seeing journalists hire lobbyists to seek favors from those they are sworn to cover independently. Worse, I am disgusted seeing news organizations use editorial space to lobby for protectionist legislation, without acknowledging the conflict of interest in coverage. I don’t want to see a single penny go to the hedge funds that are the ruin of American newspapers — indeed, if you want to tax anyone for damaging news, it should be them.

In researching a just-released paper on the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), which was commissioned by the state’s Chamber of Commerce, I was struck by how much of the contemplated legislative intervention does little to benefit the forces actually building the future of local news: Black, Latino, community, not-for-profit, digital and startup news organizations. JCPA and CJPA pointedly exclude enterprises earning less than $100,000. CJPA taxes links from platforms, which does nothing for ethnic media still in print. New York’s new law favors only full-time journalists, while many community news outlets work mainly with freelancers.

The problem is that legislators are listening to the legacy industry’s lobbyists rather than the communities affected by the decline of their newspapers. Those lobbyists present a politically enticing proposal — often to force big tech companies, namely Google and Meta, to pay for news — but that elides the responsibility legacy news organizations bear for their own strategic mismanagement of these important assets. 

As Editor & Publisher itself laments regarding the death of newspapers: “It is tragic to see long-established institutions succumb to the inexorable forces of newspaper economics. It is tragic for the community that suffers the loss of a newspaper; it is tragic for the owners and operators who have to admit defeat in the battle against publishing obstacles; and it is more than tragic for those hundreds of loyal workers who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood.” 

E&P wrote that in 1958, just as television began competing with newspapers for ad dollars. That was a few decades after the newspaper industry threatened to lobby Congress against radio in an effort to exclude the new medium from the news business. The newspaper industry would follow the same script again some decades later with phone companies and then internet companies and now AI companies. Newspaper publishers have long acted anticompetitive and monopolistic. Thus, their effort through JCPA to be exempted from antitrust is deeply ironic. 

JCPA, CJPA and their antecedents abroad — Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, the EU’s Copyright Directive, Australia’s bargaining code and Canada’s C-18 — are the latest in a long line of attempts by the news industry to extend copyright and diminish fair use. So, it is important to recall the history of the doctrine. The 1790 US Copyright Act did not protect newspapers and magazines, covering only books, charts and maps. The 1792 Postal Act offered newspapers discounted rates — often cited as precedent for government subsidy of news — but also enabled them to share copies for free, with the explicit intent of allowing them to reprint articles, long before wire services would privatize this national news network. Copyright did not extend to newspapers and magazines until 1909 and even thereafter, the Supreme Court has refused to grant publishers the property right in news they are attempting to claim now.

In my paper on CJPA, I explore a host of more constructive alternatives and best practices from across the country for the support of journalism: to work together with foundations, philanthropists, investors, technology companies and public institutions including schools and libraries — as well as communities themselves — to reimagine and rebuild local news. The status of emaciated legacy newspapers owned by hedge funds is no longer the standard by which the health of local news ecosystems should be judged. 

What matters is what the next generation — the students I have taught in the programs in entrepreneurial journalism, engagement journalism, and news innovation and leadership, which I helped develop — will build next. The question legislators should be asking is how to help them innovate and invent the future of news, not protect its past. 

Jeff Jarvis is the Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation Emeritus at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of six books, including "The Gutenberg Parenthesis," "Magazine" and the upcoming "The Web We Weave." He cohosts the podcasts "This Week in Google" and "AI Inside."


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