Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

“We need to admit news publishers are not sympathetic victims losing an unfair fight against anti-competitive practices — at least not now.”

All signs point to big tech beginning to get its comeuppance in the U.S. in 2021, perhaps with news publishers benefiting from the smackdown.

The U.S. seems more ready than ever before to bring the gauntlet down on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Facebook’s impending lawsuit brought by the FTC and 48 state attorneys general is a win, and should be celebrated as such — regardless of what happens, especially given all the dark money and technical campaign support Facebook lavishes on lawmakers.

July’s House hearings with tech CEOs featured a far-more informed bipartisan grilling than past rounds, taking the big four to task for their monopoly power. Congressional Democrats released a massive 449-page study examining big tech’s monopoly power ahead of October’s Section 230 hearings.

So why sing the blues for the news?

Well, breaking up big tech isn’t about saving legacy journalism — at least not in this country, unlike the fights brewing in France and Australia. In the U.S., news organizations, especially newspapers and digital publishers, are unlikely to see their circumstances change from the current round of antitrust cases.

The U.S. case against Facebook is based on its practice of buying up its competitors — namely Instagram and WhatsApp — with online advertising just one of many complaints. The harms lawmakers and attorneys general are concerned about are those to the “everyday user” — not news publishers.

Ordinary “mainstream” American for-profit news publishers are certainly not top of mind for powerful voices like Elizabeth Warren, an advocate for breaking up big tech. Here’s a typical Warren takeaway: “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

Newspaper chains are not small businesses. And their main strategy seems to be getting bigger, with waves of consolidation aimed at increasing scale and cutting costs. It may well be that newspaper chains themselves someday face antitrust questions of their own; the Gannett/GateHouse merger brought more one-sixth of the nation’s daily newspapers under one company.

Big digital-first publishers like BuzzFeed and HuffPost are also playing the same consolidation games. Many of the tech-darling news startups have been bought by legacy media or had their talent lured away.

Gutted local newspapers that are part of giant chains aren’t providing much of the public service that could make a case for supporting news outlets against big tech. Consider the hullabaloo when news broke that the Ithaca Journal, a Gannett newspaper, was down to just one reporter.

We need to admit news publishers are not sympathetic victims losing an unfair fight against anti-competitive practices — at least not now. Indeed, the big-tech battle most related to media has thus far has been more about content moderation, censorship, and fake news. This summer, in more than five hours of testimony, roughly seven and a half minutes focused specifically on the economic fate of news publishers.

Past precedent from the EU has shown that, unless the entire news industry joins the fight, together — legacy print, digital, television, and public media — big tech will not be brought to its knees. Some outlets will get bought off by Facebook and Google; PR campaigns and lush cash will squash discontent; the biggest news publishers will cut their own private and preferential deals. U.S. law also prohibits this kind of pan-industry collusion, though it’s possible Congress or a friendly FTC could grant safe harbor provisions.

We can win this fight, but all news organizations need to be in it together, sharing a unified commitment and a unified ask — likely focused on digital advertising. The king is in check, but checkmate will require a full-frontal, carefully planned, and unified assault by all the pieces.

Nikki Usher is an academic fellow with the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty.

All signs point to big tech beginning to get its comeuppance in the U.S. in 2021, perhaps with news publishers benefiting from the smackdown.

The U.S. seems more ready than ever before to bring the gauntlet down on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Facebook’s impending lawsuit brought by the FTC and 48 state attorneys general is a win, and should be celebrated as such — regardless of what happens, especially given all the dark money and technical campaign support Facebook lavishes on lawmakers.

July’s House hearings with tech CEOs featured a far-more informed bipartisan grilling than past rounds, taking the big four to task for their monopoly power. Congressional Democrats released a massive 449-page study examining big tech’s monopoly power ahead of October’s Section 230 hearings.

So why sing the blues for the news?

Well, breaking up big tech isn’t about saving legacy journalism — at least not in this country, unlike the fights brewing in France and Australia. In the U.S., news organizations, especially newspapers and digital publishers, are unlikely to see their circumstances change from the current round of antitrust cases.

The U.S. case against Facebook is based on its practice of buying up its competitors — namely Instagram and WhatsApp — with online advertising just one of many complaints. The harms lawmakers and attorneys general are concerned about are those to the “everyday user” — not news publishers.

Ordinary “mainstream” American for-profit news publishers are certainly not top of mind for powerful voices like Elizabeth Warren, an advocate for breaking up big tech. Here’s a typical Warren takeaway: “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

Newspaper chains are not small businesses. And their main strategy seems to be getting bigger, with waves of consolidation aimed at increasing scale and cutting costs. It may well be that newspaper chains themselves someday face antitrust questions of their own; the Gannett/GateHouse merger brought more one-sixth of the nation’s daily newspapers under one company.

Big digital-first publishers like BuzzFeed and HuffPost are also playing the same consolidation games. Many of the tech-darling news startups have been bought by legacy media or had their talent lured away.

Gutted local newspapers that are part of giant chains aren’t providing much of the public service that could make a case for supporting news outlets against big tech. Consider the hullabaloo when news broke that the Ithaca Journal, a Gannett newspaper, was down to just one reporter.

We need to admit news publishers are not sympathetic victims losing an unfair fight against anti-competitive practices — at least not now. Indeed, the big-tech battle most related to media has thus far has been more about content moderation, censorship, and fake news. This summer, in more than five hours of testimony, roughly seven and a half minutes focused specifically on the economic fate of news publishers.

Past precedent from the EU has shown that, unless the entire news industry joins the fight, together — legacy print, digital, television, and public media — big tech will not be brought to its knees. Some outlets will get bought off by Facebook and Google; PR campaigns and lush cash will squash discontent; the biggest news publishers will cut their own private and preferential deals. U.S. law also prohibits this kind of pan-industry collusion, though it’s possible Congress or a friendly FTC could grant safe harbor provisions.

We can win this fight, but all news organizations need to be in it together, sharing a unified commitment and a unified ask — likely focused on digital advertising. The king is in check, but checkmate will require a full-frontal, carefully planned, and unified assault by all the pieces.

Nikki Usher is an academic fellow with the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty.

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