Level the playing field for local news

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The lack of high-quality, objective local news outlets is a cause for great concern. On the local level, residents are not adequately informed and are largely uninvolved in their communities and local governance. Meanwhile, disinformation and misinformation spread as more and more people rely on social media, forums and partisan news sites for their news and information.   

Federal legislation was introduced recently to help "save" local news. Facebook and Google have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support local news. However, government subsidies and financial contributions from social media companies will not save local news. What would rescue local news is a level playing field. 

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was recently introduced in Congress. The Act would provide tax credits and other incentives for people to subscribe to local newspapers, donate to local news nonprofits, advertise with local news outlets and allow publishers to hire local journalists.   

While all this likely would help, government subsidizing the local news industry will not fix the root cause of the problem. The playing field is stacked against local news publishers. In addition, government support of media raises questions about journalistic ethics. Journalists need to be independent, but their independence may be questioned if they are dependent on the government for subsidies. 

Facebook and Google have invested in initiatives that include grants, programs to encourage people to start local news sites, training and other forms of support.  These resources have enabled a few dozen local news outlets to form and others to stay afloat.   

However, when you look at the scale of the problem — more than 1,800 communities in the United States without a local newspaper or local news site — it appears the efforts have not had the necessary impact. Beyond that, local news should be and can be sustainable without funds from social media companies. 

There needs to be equity on the content side of the business.   

Social media companies only show posts to a small percentage of users — this includes posts from news organizations, which reduces site traffic at the original source.  

News organizations can pay to have their posts seen by more people on social media outlets through post boosting and ads, but many do not have the budget to do so, particularly on the local level.   

After a new law passed in Australia that would force social media giants to negotiate with news publishers and pay them for using news on their platforms, Facebook and Google agreed to pay for such privileges. However, these kinds of partnerships and deals have primarily been made with big publishers, leaving most small, locally owned publications out in the cold.    

While Google and others say they have done much to stop stealing content from content creators, content is routinely being lifted by other websites, reducing site traffic for the original creators. In addition, social media users post the text from articles or a screenshot of the article as their post with no penalty, depriving the news outlet of that traffic.   

In addition, social media and other publications are allowed to aggregate content from original content creators, with some taking more content than others before providing a backlink to the source, again reducing site traffic for the original creators. Finally, some sites do not even offer a backlink but merely name the source, which for an online publication does no good.   

Facebook and other social media giants have enabled and encouraged the creation of groups where disinformation and misinformation run rampant.  Meanwhile, the group administrators make their group the go-to place in town for all residents, directly competing with a local news publisher for the same audience the local news site needs to survive and thrive. Often, posts providing links to legitimate news publications are refused or deleted by the group page administrator to control the news and the message, further undermining the success of the local news publication.   

These are just some of the issues that, if solved, could create more equity on the content side of the news publishing business.   

Unfortunately, we cannot legislate these solutions. They need to be initiated by the social media companies themselves.   

Those companies have no incentive to make these changes. Their hands must be forced. Here is where the government can take action. Unfortunately, the federal government is mired in dysfunction and partisanship. The silver lining is that both political parties are upset with the social media companies, albeit for different reasons. Perhaps common ground can be found on this front, but don't hold your breath. 

Michael Shapiro is founder and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in New Jersey, New York, Florida and Texas. These sites often represent the only daily news source in their respective communities.

Read more of  Mike Shapiro’s “Industry Insights  as part of  "E&P Voices."

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