NEWSPAPER ADVOCACY IN WASHINGTON D.C.
It was fitting that in the days leading up to National Newspaper Week — an annual observance designed to remind the public of the critical role publications like The Courier play in their communities — I was among a contingent of dozens of community journalists from across the country attending a fly-in in Washington D.C. in support of pro-newspaper legislation that could be a game-changer.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) is a bill before the Senate that would enable community news organizations to collectively negotiate with Big Tech for a revenue sharing platform similar to what is used in Australia, Canada and parts of Europe.
The crux of the matter is that Big Tech is using content made by traditional media sources (like The Courier) to capture viewers and profit from targeted advertising revenue.
The JCPA (Senate Bill 1094) is the work of News Media Alliance, a strong advocacy group for print journalists that has been working on this legislation for years. Introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John N. Kennedy (R-LA) before passing the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, it would enable fair and responsible compensation for use of published print content by economic juggernauts Google and Facebook in a time when newspaper revenue is at an all-time low and expenses at an all-time high.
The bill is expected to be introduced into the House of Representatives chamber this fall.
“We must pass the JCPA to ensure that publishers — especially small and local ones — are compensated more fairly,” News Media Alliance wrote in a statement in advance of the fly-in. “These publishers work tirelessly to report news and write content, yet Big Tech companies are the ones who profit most from their work. This is fundamentally unjust, and the JCPA will bring about much-needed change.”
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
The nearly 100 men and women representing the industry in Washington D.C. last week came from 25 states, and the makeup of the team included primarily working journalists, along with state directors, attorneys and seasoned lobbyists.
I was joined by South Dakota colleagues Dave Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association (SDNA); Letti Lister, publisher of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish; and Bill Masterson, a former SDNA president who today works with Lee Enterprises, which publishes the Rapid City Journal.
Once in Washington D.C., the plan was simple: divide and conquer.
After an opening night reception hosted by The Washington Post Tuesday, Sept. 26 and a Wednesday morning breakfast briefing at a hotel on Capitol Hill, we hit the ground running.
The South Dakota contingent had meetings with Rep. Dusty Johnson in his office at the Longworth House Office Building, Sen. John Thune in his office inside the U.S. Capitol, and Sen. Mike Rounds in his office inside the Hart Senate Office Building.
Because of Sen. Thune’s influence in our nation’s capital — he is the second-ranking GOP member and Senate Minority Whip — our meeting with him also included a few other key members of the advocacy team, including Danielle Coffey, CEO of the News Media Alliance; and Barbara Wall, former chief legal counsel with Gannett Co. Inc., and a current member of the Gannett board of directors.
The points we made were clear through various testimonies and examples shared by those in the room:
That newspapers are as relevant to the well-being of their communities today as they have ever been;
That readership remains high (a SDNA study commissioned in 2021 shows that 83% of adults in South Dakota read the local newspaper in print or online every month);
That revenues previously relied upon to cover the costs of printing and postage are a fraction of what they once were; since 2005, newspaper revenue has dropped 58%, according to data provided by News Media Alliance;
That many consumers are finding their information elsewhere, including often-inaccurate platforms — including social media — that promote an agenda;
And that the net result of all of this is a national community journalism landscape that is seeing a loss of local control, an increase in what are known in the industry as “news deserts,” a jarring reduction in staff and content and, in worst-case sceneries, the loss of a community newspaper entirely.
The News Media Alliance reports that, nationwide, two newspapers close every week.
‘BLOCK BY BLOCK’
The relationship between South Dakota journalists and our elected representatives serving in the nation’s capital has been historically strong, so it wasn’t surprising to hear all three members of our delegation voice a high level of both appreciation and concern for the challenges newspapers are facing.
Rep. Johnson told us he is keenly aware of, and grateful for, the vital impact newspapers play in their communities, and that he was fully supportive of the JCPA legislation.
Sen. Rounds, who has been reportedly lukewarm on the bill, acknowledged that challenging times for the industry require innovation and new strategies like the one being considered. He also expressed deep concern about AI (Artificial Intelligence) and said legislation controlling how AI uses information needs to be part of the discussion.
But it was a comment from Sen. Thune that really took me aback.
After the official ask for support of Senate Bill 1094 from News Media Alliance CEO Danielle Coffey and additional introductory remarks from Bordewyk, I had the opportunity to share with the senator my personal perspective.
The newspaper landscape today is far different from what it was when my dad published The Courier in the 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st century, and I often wonder why it’s me who is the owner of a newspaper in what is arguably the most challenging time in the more than 300-year history of the industry. I also told him I was 47 years old and have plenty of fight left in me, and when I heard about the JCPA, I was energized.
“It makes me feel like I’ve got a fighting chance,” I told Sen Thune, who was seated directly to my left.
Then I noticed his face had fallen.
“I knew this was coming,” he said of the serious struggles that newspapers are facing, “but I didn’t think it would happen this fast.”
I think it was both his honesty and an audible “ah-ha” realization that hit me hard.
Sen. Thune gets it and, I believe, is genuinely concerned. And while he didn’t outright tell us that he would back the JCPA, as we gathered for a group photo after the meeting, he suggested that he can see Senate Bill 1094 couched in other legislation by the end of the year.
It felt like a win.
Even better, throughout the day, we were hearing encouraging reports from others who were participating in the News Media Alliance fly-in. Like those of us from South Dakota, other journalists were making strong connections with their own Congressmen and Congresswomen, whose support will be vital in getting this legislation through.
And after an informal debriefing by phone on Monday morning, Bordewyk told me he is convinced that what we did in D.C. last week will have an impact — that it can’t not. Our elected members of Congress truly want to hear from us, and when we take time to leave our work and our families and visit them in their own space on Capital Hill, it packs a punch.
“We’re building something,” Dave told me. “Block by block.”
I had plenty of time to think about what happened during our meetings while spending an extra day in Washington D.C. on Thursday, and it’s consumed me since returning to Freeman Friday night.
There are two things that really stand out.
1. I am part of an industry made up of some of the most earnest, committed and well-intended humans in the world, whose care for their communities is both unmatched and underappreciated. And when it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work — whether that means covering the news of the day or lobbying our elected officials for something we believe in — the impact is without limit.
2. Democracy works. The taken-for-granted fact of the matter is that, on Wednesday of last week, amidst deep concern over the possible government shutdown and a simmering cultural conflict the likes of which hasn’t been seen in more than 50 years, our Senators and Representatives met with us. The organizational tactic and conversational approach News Media Alliance used was welcomed by our members of Congress and their staff with open arms. They invited us into their space, offered us their coffee, and gave us their time.
And when we all left, we left them and their staff members with more information about the plight of our industry than they had when we walked in.
So what now?
I don’t think any of us fully know. News Media Alliance, which is based in Washington D.C., will assuredly stay engaged with the process and continue its lobbying effort in the weeks and months to come. I plan to follow up with emails and private messages with the South Dakota Congressional delegation, and I’m sure dozens of others who participated in last week’s effort will do the same.
And hopefully, sooner rather than later, all of it will bear fruit.
In the meantime, my focus shifts back to doing the work that I so deeply believe in as a community journalist and newspaper publisher — the very work for which I and others advocated in Washington D.C. last week.
“Block by block,” as Bordewyk so concisely stated in our phone call Monday morning.
Block by block.