On December 5, 2023, an informational hearing of the Senate Committee on Judiciary was held at UCLA School of Law on the importance of journalism in the digital age. Alameda Post publisher Adam Gillitt was one of those invited to speak on the state of local news. Other topics included the news as it relates to technology, the importance of diverse coverage, and an examination of international examples.
The state of journalism in the digital age
The afternoon began with an overview from Michael Karanicolas, Executive Director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy. “News media is in a crisis,” he began. It was a sentiment that echoed throughout the entirety of the hearing.
“A recent report from the Poynter Institute found 130 newspapers closed over the course of 2023 and that since 2005 the U.S. has lost nearly 2,900 newspapers and 43,000 journalist jobs,” he said. “While some of this can be replaced through digital news sites and other startups, these tend to be clustered in wealthier and urban areas, leading to a rapid expansion of news deserts across the country.”
A crisis for news media is a crisis to democracy, Karanicolas emphasized. “Democracy depends on an informed electorate,” he said. “Fact-based journalism is essential to public health, development, and accountable governance.”
Following Karanicolas’ statements, Senator Ben Allen asked him how he sees AI playing a role in journalism moving forward. The Executive Director described AI as a tool that may act as a force multiplier, but will not replace journalists.
“Certainly not any time soon, we’re not going to move to a point where we’ll just have staff of AI journalists,” he said. But he noted that AI might be used “as a research tool for developing a first draft or help rewriting a story or aiding with research.”
During the “Technology and the News Industry” portion of the hearing, Kressin Meador LLC Partner Brandon Kressin spoke about crawling and indexing, specific to news sites’ relationships with Google. Hal Singer, Managing Director of Econ One and Professor at the University of Utah, cited the “massive power imbalance” between news publications and Google, as newspaper circulation and advertising revenue have gone down while Google’s U.S. search revenue continues to rise.
“California has four counties without a news source, and 11 counties with only one,” read one of his slides. “The Bay Area is one of the 20 metro areas that have lost the most news outlets per capita.”
Lance Knobel touched on his work as CEO of the Cityside Journalism Initiative, which publishes Oaklandside and Berkleyside, and Matt Pearce, President of Media Guild of the West, spoke out about the dangers of AI journalism.
Search engines and local news
Also present was Richard Gingras, Vice President of News at Google. “Google drives a massive amount of valuable traffic to publishers at no cost, which they use to grow their businesses,” Gingras said. “The disruption of the newspaper business model was the result of the competitive dynamic of the internet with its vast array of content sources and new opportunities for advertisers. A link tax, as proven elsewhere, would be counterproductive, making it more difficult for users to find diverse sources of news. … Google is already providing tremendous value to news publishers and has rolled out programs in the United States, like Google News Showcase, which is the same program that underpins our commercial agreements with publishers in other countries, including Australia. Google is committed to enabling a sustainable future for news in California and across the country.”
In the “State of News and Reporting Today” section of the hearing, Los Angeles Times President and COO Chris Argentieri said the award-winning publication cannot survive for long without significant changes made to the digital landscape.
“Google earns enough advertising revenue to pay for the annual cost of our newsroom in less than three hours,” Argentieri said while Gingras smiled and shook his head. “Google’s revenue for a month or two would cover the cost of all working journalists in California. I raise this not because I begrudge their success. Quite the contrary. It’s success like this of California companies that I think we should celebrate. I mention these statistics because they’re relevant. Large digital platforms like Google and Meta use our content to generate billions of dollars in revenue and do not compensate us for it. The size of the companies makes it impossible for us or anyone in our industry to have a seat at the table to resolve this issue through normal business channels.”
Smaller publications’ struggles
California Black Media Executive Director Regina Brown Wilson brought up the importance of diverse-led publications and Latino Media Collaborative President Arturo Carmona spoke about the difficulties many Latinx publications face today. Many news deserts in California occur in marginalized communities, they noted. Martha Diaz-Aszkenazy, Publisher of the San Fernando Valley Sun, voiced her frustration with the uphill battle that is local journalism, as did Gillitt, publisher of the Post. Just because local and ethnic journalism receive fewer clicks than national news sites, they are not any less imperative for a community, he noted.
“Local news needs investment and committed funding to ensure that the needs of smaller communities will continue to be served. When two thousand residents read one of our articles, that means a significant portion of Alameda learns about a local issue that would otherwise go unreported. But those same two thousand impressions on social media sites are a drop in the bucket compared to the millions generated by clickbait from publishers with greater reach,” Gillitt said. “Getting more clicks and impressions does not accurately correlate to the value of content to smaller communities.” The Post has published his full remarks on journalism in the digital age.
Others weigh in
Project Director of the California Local News Fellowship Program Christa Scharfenberg highlighted their program placing journalists in newsrooms in need, which Senator Steve Glazer said was “at the center of what’s important in local journalism.”
The international perspective was given by Courtney C. Radsch, Director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty; Jonathan McHale, Vice President of Digital Trade, Computer & Communications Industry Association;Thorin Klosowski, Security and Privacy Activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Taylor Owen, Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics and Communications.
McHale offered observations on several approaches other countries have taken addressing the journalism crisis.
“In Europe, there’s a pseudo-intellectual property right, beyond existing copyright, intended to facilitate news businesses’ ability to negotiate licenses for their content,” he said. “In Australia and Canada, the introduction of a mandatory bargaining code governing the commercial relationship between news businesses and internet companies. What unites these two approaches is a controversial theory that fragments of text or even just things shared online should generate a claim of compensation. Not only does this upend long-standing international copyright law, but it also points a dagger at the very nature of the internet as an information-sharing ecosystem.These approaches are essentially a private tax in support of a business model under stress. There’s no certainty that either approach will provide a long-term solution and much evidence that they will harm the quality of news in the digital ecosystem that they need to survive.”
Owen shared his experience with the Online News Act in the Canadian news marketplace. Senator Tom Umberg asked him what he’s learned since the Online News Act bill was passed.
“Be prepared for a lot of theatrics,” warned Owen. “There’s a lot of working with small publishers to enhance their fear and threaten an existential news-free environment. Next is to be bold as legislators. It is very difficult to imagine the free market essentially regulating itself in this way, and so without government intervention the status quo remains.”