Monday, February 27, 2023
Why Advertisers Aren’t to Blame for Mass Layoffs at NPR
More than 50 years on, it’s easy to wonder what went wrong with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the legislation that created public media as we’ve come to know it in the United States. Despite the popular understanding that a healthy democracy requires a free press, the U.S. Congress remains reluctant to offer public subsidies for any journalism that doesn’t operate under the dictates of the commercial marketplace.
Nowhere is this more evident than in news from earlier this week that NPR plans to cut 10 percent of its staff to make up a budget shortfall of $30 million. The reason NPR’s chief executive gives for the layoffs is not the routine failure of Congress to fund public journalism at the level it needs, but a “sharp decline in our revenues from corporate sponsors.”
“Despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the United States impoverishes its public media infrastructures,” writes Professor Victor Pickard, co-director of the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania (and Free Press’ board chair). This has left nominally public-media outlets to fend for themselves in the marketplace. Outlets like NPR and PBS — as well as the many local stations affiliated with them — receive the “bulk of their funding in the form of private capital from individual contributors, foundations, and corporations,” he adds.
The net effect of this private-sector dependency is a public-media system that is by definition not noncommercial. And that affects not just the future of journalism in the United States but our democracy as well.
The Public Broadcasting Act is very clear on the matter: It amends a section of the 1934 Communications Act by inserting the word “noncommercial” to describe the type of radio and television outlets that would receive public funding from the newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
It’s an insertion that underscores the Act’s goals: to set up a free and functional noncommercial media sector that could counterbalance the market-driven media that dominated the public sphere then as it dominates it now.
The poor antidote
The CPB was supposed to fund this antidote to profit-driven news and information. In the words of President Johnson, who signed the Public Broadcasting Act, this was about offering public support for media that serve “great and not the trivial purposes.”
But such greatness is hard to achieve with Congress’ paltry annual offering to the CPB: At $465 million in FY 2022, the public allocation boils down to a little more than $1.40 per person in the United States. By comparison, the United Kingdom spends more than $81 per person and France more than $75. Head further north and the numbers head north as well: Denmark’s per-person spending is more than $93, Finland’s more than $100 and Norway’s more than $110. And it isn’t just a European trend: Japan (+$53/capita) and South Korea (+$14) show their appreciation for publicly funded media at levels that put the U.S. outlay to shame.
This bleak math is all too familiar to those who follow public-media policy in the United States. Lawmakers here continue to believe that publicly funded media should remain subordinate to its corporate counterpart — and that the work of journalism is best suited to the private sector.
That doesn’t make sense. Commercial journalism has been in crisis for decades now, as popular news-consumption habits have changed and advertisers have had to find new ways to reach these consumers — including ways that don’t help fund the sorts of journalism that democracies need to stay healthy. Between 2008 and 2020, more than 1,000 U.S. newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half.
As the commercial model for news production falters, the last thing we should be doing is funding public-interest journalism at levels that force noncommercial outlets like NPR to mimic the for-profit news business. “Allowing our public media to become so dependent on advertising revenue (and other sources of private capital and ‘enhanced underwriting’) was always bad social policy,” Pickard wrote in response to my online comments about NPR’s current dilemma.
A 2021 study co-authored by Pickard and Professor Timothy Neff of the University of Leicester finds that more robust funding for public media strengthens a given country’s democracy — with increased public knowledge about civic affairs, more diverse media coverage and lower levels of extremist views.
Conversely, the loss of quality local journalism and investigative reporting has far-reaching societal harms. Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund (and a former Free Press staff member) has cataloged the growing body of evidence showing that declines in local news and information lead to drops in civic engagement. “The faltering of newspapers, the consolidation of TV and radio, and the rising power of social media platforms are not just commercial issues driven by the market,” Stearns writes. “They are democratic issues with profound implications for our communities.”
Innovations in noncommercial media are poised to help fill the massive local news-and-information gap that the collapse of market-driven news models has created. But these innovative outlets require help via local, state and federal policies.
Global policies, local examples
As a start, Free Press Action has called for a quadrupling of public funds for noncommercial news and information. This kind of congressional commitment would recognize that depending on the private-sector and emulating commercial models isn’t a viable approach for the longevity of local news and information. To get there at the federal level, Free Press Action has proposed a new tax on digital advertising to fund the kinds of innovative news production that are now needed. A tax of 2 percent would generate more than $2 billion annually, enough to support new noncommercial-media models, and lessen any dependence on corporate underwriters for revenue.
Dramatically increasing public investment in locally engaged reporting would help support the wide array of new nonprofit outlets that are focused on meeting the information needs of communities that commercial media too often ignore. Many of these new models are profiled in The Roadmap for Local News, an actionable plan to ensure that every U.S. community has access to necessary public-interest news and information.
Co-authored by Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, Darryl Holliday of City Bureau and Mike Rispoli of Free Press, The Roadmap expands journalism’s forms into new and previously underserved communities while sharpening the definition of what it is for. It calls on lawmakers to cultivate and pass public policies that support the expansion of civic information while maintaining editorial independence.
In New Jersey, Free Press Action helped conceive and create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit funded by a state-budget appropriation. The consortium, whose board includes representatives from public colleges and universities across the state, supports inventive local-news projects like the Newark News & Story Collaborative and the Bloomfield Information Project, which train local residents to report the news from their own perspectives.
In California, Free Press Action supported state legislation that dedicated $25 million to fund local reporting in underserved and underrepresented communities statewide. The money will be distributed through a fellowship program housed at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. (Free Press’ Rispoli will serve on the program’s advisory board).
More than 50 years after the Public Broadcasting Act, Free Press is also looking 50 years into the future. Through the work of the Media 2070 project, Free Press envisions ways the media can serve as levers for racial justice. This includes engaging policymakers in the repair and reconciliation needed to redress centuries of harm news outlets have inflicted on Black communities.
As NPR struggles to find the revenue to keep its reporters on their beats, it shouldn’t see the problem as a failure to raise advertising revenue from corporate underwriters. It’s a failure to advocate for policies that would increase the public funding it and other noncommercial media outlets need to thrive.
If we’re serious about the future of journalism and civic information in the United States, we need to look locally for innovations in not-for-profit news, and abroad for examples of more robust ways to fund it.
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Musk, Twitter and the Lessons not Learned
Research released Thursday by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) offers the latest chapter in the rapid demise of Elon Musk’s Twitter: Major advertisers — including those featured during this weekend’s Super Bowl — are paying the social network millions of dollars to drag their brands through the platform’s toxic sludge.
The research features screen grabs of instances where Twitter has displayed ads from brands including Amazon, Apple TV, Merrill Lynch, the NFL and Prime Video next to tweets from self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and others known for publishing hateful content and dangerous conspiracy theories. It’s a rogues’ gallery that includes misogynist and suspected sex-trafficker Andrew Tate, white supremacist Andrew Anglin, disinformation website Gateway Pundit and COVID conspiracy theorist Rogan O’Handley (aka “DC Draino”).
Musk reinstated each of the 10 inflammatory accounts that CCDH surveyed after he took control of Twitter last fall — even though each had previously committed multiple gross violations of Twitter policies designed to protect users from the spread of hate and disinformation.
The Twitter exodus
Musk’s takeover of the platform met with a public outcry at the end of 2022 as he rolled back user protections, laid off (or chased out) nearly three-quarters of Twitter’s staff, and threatened to “name and shame” advertisers who joined the mass exodus.
More than 500 advertisers have abandoned the platform, fearing that their brands wouldn’t be safe under Musk’s erratic leadership. Their departure resulted in a 70-percent drop in Twitter’s December revenue over the previous year, according to Standard Media Index.
Twitter and Musk were counting on Super Bowl-related ad buys to stop the hemorrhaging of dollars and help the company meet its interest obligation to the banks that financed Musk’s $44-billion purchase of the platform. But many of these brands are reluctant to return to Twitter without conditions.
According to Erin Woo at The Information, some Super Bowl advertisers have tucked language into their Twitter contracts that allows them to cancel their ad deals if Musk undermines preexisting Twitter policies “designed to protect advertisers from having their ads run against unsavory content.”
JLo, Chalamet and the ‘hellscape’
The CCDH research documents Musk’s failure to meet this condition: Amazon Prime Video ads appear next to sexist content; Peacock-TV ads appear adjacent to racial slurs; Apple TV ads run up against Russian propaganda; and an NFL Super Bowl promotion runs adjacent to some of the most misleading COVD disinformation.
And this is just the tip of the hellscape. CCDH surveyed only 10 of the thousands of bad actors that Musk has reportedly invited back to Twitter since he took the helm.
Researchers looked only at ads from eight companies. According to the analysis, continuing to place these ads next to the accounts of these 10 bad actors alone could generate up to $19 million in annual advertising revenue for Twitter. In other words: Major advertisers are giving Musk millions to place their brands adjacent to Twitter’s most toxic content.
In one example, an Amazon Prime ad promoting a film starring Jennifer Lopez appears next to a tweet from neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin in which he claims that the “only career that a woman is actually capable of on merit is prostitution.”
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Is Twitter Worth Saving?
Twitter is unraveling at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Things have gotten so bad under the erratic reign of Elon Musk that the future of the social-media company is in question. What, if anything, should be done to pull Twitter from the brink?
From the moment Musk walked through the door, he’s sought to impose his unique brand of creative destruction on Twitter. But the results have been less than brilliant, and far more damaging.
Musk’s takeover deal itself saddled him and his investors with a $13-billion debt load that could force Twitter to default on payment as early as next April, with the possibility of banks forcing the company into bankruptcy.
Bad financing was only the beginning. To help service his debt Musk drastically slashed costs, including laying off half of Twitter’s staff, thousands of the company’s outside contractors, and forcing more than a thousand others to walk off the job. He decimated Twitter’s trust and safety and human-rights teams, making it all but impossible for the company to uphold and enforce critical user safeguards and content-moderation standards.
His on-again-off-again plans to implement a blue-check subscription service were on and off again last week, but not before Twitter’s chief privacy, information security and compliance officers resigned, reportedly out of concern about the plan’s potential risk to user privacy.
On Thanksgiving, Musk granted a “general amnesty,” effectively inviting back on the platform some of the most dangerous purveyors of hate and disinformation. This impulsive decision-making has played poorly with advertisers. Half of Twitter’s 100 top advertisers have pulled their placements since Musk took over, costing the company tens of millions of dollars in monthly revenues. Several told the #StopToxicTwitter campaign that the platform’s weakened content-moderation had increased the risks of their brands appearing adjacent to some of the most toxic content.
The real value of social media
In the midst of all this wreckage one thing is obvious: If Twitter is going to be saved, Musk isn’t the person to do the job. Instead, the company needs to be run by someone who understands that the real value of any social-media venture lies in its ability to attract, keep and serve users.
It turns out that most people go online to find information and news, stay in touch with friends and family, and research how to do things. These users aren’t visiting social media to be harassed or to harass others, or to be scammed by those seeking to make a buck or a billion by selling dubious verification services. Content moderation is a way to give people what they say that they want. As businesses that still rely on advertising, companies like Twitter need to enforce community standards to ensure brand and user safety.
But saving Twitter might require even more: that we recognize the public goods of social networking and put in place additional measures that protect these values.
Some of us have been around the internet long enough to remember the euphoria that accompanied the early days of the Arab Spring, when activists from Tunisia to Iran took to social media to organize pro-democratic street protests. “If you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet,” Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim said at the time.
In retrospect, the sentiment seems naive: The internet was never much of a safe haven for women, communities of color, activists, dissidents or other marginalized communities. And yet many of these same groups have leveraged social media’s global reach to organize and engage more people in the struggle for a more equitable and democratic world.
Rebuilding the public square
So simply giving people the internet is not enough. We need access to an internet that is free from blocking, throttling and other forms of discrimination imposed by internet providers like AT&T and Comcast (a principle known as Net Neutrality). And we need legal assurances that these providers — along with online platforms — won’t conspire with unscrupulous government authorities and data brokers to violate user privacy and subject us to economic and civil injustice.
People need social-media companies to prevent their algorithms from promoting the most incendiary content, to protect all users from disinformation regardless of the languages they speak, and to be transparent about their business models, AI and moderation practices.
We also need to work together to build online spaces that are free from predatory commercial influences, spaces that capture what was good about Twitter or any other commercial platform, without succumbing to profit incentives that often push malicious, sensationalist or just plain false content, while downranking valuable news and information.
For Twitter to survive, its leadership must understand that the company’s success is intertwined with its public-service obligation. For Musk that concept is likely too high a hill to climb, but it’s one he or his successor can’t afford to ignore. Twitter’s ultimate value is tied up in its users and their ability to connect and communicate for the benefit of each other and everyone else.
Twitter may be beyond saving, but the idea of a public-interest social network is something worth fighting for, with or without Elon Musk.
(photo credit: @AEMarling)
Monday, October 24, 2022
Journalism’s Bad Bargain
By Sanjay Jolly and Timothy Karr
Yes, journalism is in crisis in the United States. That’s obvious to anyone observing the job losses and newspaper closures that have wreaked havoc on local news production over the past 20 years. But few of the lawmakers and lobbyists who claim they’re responding to this national emergency seem willing to focus relief efforts where they’re needed most.
Various proposals have gained momentum in Washington. Of these, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) — inspired in large part by Australia’s news media bargaining code — was recently voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.
JCPA backers describe the legislation as an antitrust measure, but it’s a pro-cartel bill that ignores the fundamental problems faced by out-of-work and struggling journalists, and it does nothing for people in news deserts, those communities with few-to-no local-news outlets. Moreover, it doesn’t address the dearth of news outlets and reporters covering issues of concern to Black and Brown communities.
The JCPA’s supporters seem to believe that offering a convoluted mechanism for corporate handouts to profitable and consolidated media outlets will address the information needs of communities like these — but news deserts are the very places that these large chains routinely fail to serve.
Legislation for whom?
So what does the JCPA actually do? The legislation creates an exemption from antitrust laws, which would allow news publishers and broadcasters to coordinate and conduct joint negotiations with the two biggest tech platforms, Google and Meta. In other words, the JCPA would allow the news-media companies to form cartels and collude to extract higher payments when platforms host their content in any way.
The bill also sets forth an arcane set of rules for conducting these negotiations. Essentially, Congress is telling the platforms that they have to bargain with these new cartels, and if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on their own, they’ll be forced into a “baseball-style” arbitration, where each side submits a final offer and a panel made up of three lawyers chooses whichever offer they decide is more “fair.” But fair for whom?
Supporters of the JCPA, including its lead sponsor Sen. Amy Klobuchar, believe that by creating otherwise-prohibited cartels and forcing Big Tech platforms to the negotiating table, media companies can generate enough new revenues to make journalism great again.
On its face, that sounds plausible (albeit complicated). But the whole thing falls apart on deeper scrutiny. Indeed, the case for the JCPA is built on a series of false assumptions, misleading conflations, bad economics and a fundamental misunderstanding of what and who needs support.
At its core, the JCPA isn’t about sustaining a vibrant free press or protecting democracy or ensuring that ordinary people have access to vital information about their communities. Instead, it’s about big corporations getting Congress to help them shake down even bigger corporations so they can get a few extra bucks for their shareholders.
Unrepresented: those who need relief the most
The most vocal proponents of the JCPA fall roughly into one of three camps.
First, there are the media companies. Lobbyists representing the largest corporate publishers and broadcasters, such as Gannett (which owns about 1,000 newspapers nationwide), Sinclair Broadcast Group (which owns and operates more than 200 local TV stations) and the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital (which owns more than 200 newspapers) have been most active on Capitol Hill. These companies advocate for the JCPA primarily through their Washington trade groups, including the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Broadcasters.
This first camp’s interest in the JCPA is self-evident, as they stand to make tens of millions of dollars if the bill passes. The JCPA payout would provide an unneeded boost for profitable broadcasters in particular, at a time when the largest broadcast conglomerates have rebounded from the brief ad-market downturn caused by the COVID crisis to report billion-dollar revenues and a record-breaking season for midterm political-ad spending.
The second camp consists of people focused on antitrust and includes Sen. Klobuchar. She and advocates like the American Economic Liberties Project see Google and Meta as possessing far too much power, particularly in digital-advertising markets. They believe the JCPA will help level the playing field between the platforms and news-media companies. The interest this second camp has in the JCPA is less about journalism than it is about reining in Big Tech.
The third camp is a group of Republican lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz who want to stick it to the social-media companies for deplatforming Donald Trump and attempting to curb the spread of his Big Lie about the outcome of the 2020 election. There’s no real substance behind their argument beyond that. It has little to do with saving journalism — but Klobuchar is ignoring all of the red flags and rhetoric to preserve the bipartisan coalition needed to ensure the bill passes.
Lost in this mix are newsroom workers and the communities that have been hit hardest by the failed economics of news production. A growing number of communities across the country lack access to the high-quality local journalism they need to stay informed and participate in civic affairs. That is the heart of the journalism crisis. The financial and technological headwinds faced by for-profit (and in most cases still profitable) news chains are certainly relevant, but they do not in and of themselves present a problem in need of a public-policy solution.
Propping up cartels
By presenting the journalism crisis simply in terms of news companies’ lost revenues, JCPA proponents suggest that the government must prop up incumbent commercial publishers and broadcasters without considering whether this would help address communities’ information needs. In a strategic sleight of hand, the large news-media companies want us to conflate the public importance of local journalism with their own bottom lines. But what’s good for Gannett and Sinclair is not what’s good for America.
Local-accountability journalism — including coverage of city-hall beats and investigative reporting — is a public good that the commercial markets have been unable (or unwilling) to produce effectively or profitably. That’s because today’s local-news giants spent decades buying up local outlets, driven by the idea that consolidated ownership would create economies of scale and generate profits that could be extracted from local communities. Their buying sprees burdened many of these conglomerates with massive debts that they’ve had to service by laying off newsroom staff and downsizing daily editions.
While they once dominated the distribution of news and information in local markets, news chains were reluctant or slow to adapt to a digital world that opened up audiences to numerous other ways to engage with information, newsworthy or otherwise. These companies responded to these changes in consumption by cutting costs further or shuttering operations altogether. Between 2005 and 2020, the United States lost more than a quarter of its newspapers, and the number of newspaper-newsroom employees shrank by more than half.
They’re often depicted solely as victims of the big, bad platforms, even though consolidated news-media companies have played their own part in the demise of their brand of local news. Ironically, the companies that stand to benefit most from the JCPA are the ones that have slashed news production while continuing to buy back stocks, go deeper into debt as they acquire more outlets, and use other financial gimmicks to enrich their owners, executives and shareholders.
Their self-inflicted wounds don’t mean we should ignore the evolution of digital technology and its impact on news production. Communications advances over the past 20 years have laid bare the reality that the commercial market for local journalism — and print news in particular — was always precarious. The advent of online news consumption brought down high barriers to entry (printing presses and distribution networks) and undermined the traditional business of local news as well.
Once we recognize the miscues and market failures driving the journalism crisis, the justification for simply handing money over to these same incumbents evaporates — while the case for treating local-accountability journalism as a public good becomes unequivocal.
More than ever before, the newspaper industry is dominated by consolidated corporations, with less than a third of the nation’s 5,000 or so weeklies and only 10 of the 100 largest circulation dailies remaining independent. Time and again, we have seen newspaper chains that are owned by investment firms, hedge funds and private equity groups lay off journalists en masse to help pay for debt-fueled mergers and stock buybacks. It’s all too likely that the news-media companies would allocate any income from the JCPA to accelerate these types of actions or fatten the wallets of their own executives — rather than spending this money on local civic-affairs reporting.
The JCPA doesn’t require news-media companies to actually invest the money they would receive from the platforms in journalists. Even if a small fraction of that additional income went toward increasing the ranks of local reporters, cartel bargaining is just about the least efficient means of achieving that end. It’s no surprise, then, that journalist unions and associations of small news publishers, which comprise the real beating heart of the Fourth Estate, have expressed serious concerns about the bill for its failure to tie revenue distribution to the hiring of newsroom workers.
While large news outlets claim they are just trying to get their “fair value” when platforms link to their published content, the JCPA expressly prohibits the arbitration panel from considering the economic benefits that accrue to news-media companies when platforms distribute or aggregate their content. This is a dead giveaway that the JCPA isn’t about economic fairness at all. Instead, it’s a classic shakedown. As the journalist Cory Doctorow noted last spring, the JCPA’s negotiating framework is “just a way to force two different groups of rapacious monopolists to divide up their ill-gotten gains in a slightly different way.”
Waiving antitrust restrictions is likely to harm competition and consumers, entrench incumbents, and increase their unhealthy codependency with the platforms. This will only create larger barriers to entry for new and innovative models for engaged, independent, local journalism.
Accountability journalism as a public good
The JCPA is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem. Bad policy interventions like this only further distort markets when better and more direct remedies are at hand.
Again, any solution to the journalism crisis must start by treating local journalism as a public good — and that means increased public subsidies directly tied to the production of local journalism. As in other cases of market failure, it is a routine function of governments to support public goods when the commercial market cannot produce them efficiently. The U.S. government has always played a crucial public role in media markets, from postal subsidies that allowed newspapers to proliferate in the early republic, to assigning public-interest obligations in exchange for news broadcasters’ free use of spectrum, to creating the computer network that later became known as the internet.
As with other public goods like parks and libraries, high-quality local journalism requires public funding, and these funds need to be specifically targeted to invest in local reporting. Fortunately, state-level initiatives can help point the way for larger federal efforts. In New Jersey, the independent nonprofit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is distributing millions of dollars of state-funded grants to community-journalism projects. And in California, the state recently allocated $25 million to subsidize the salaries of early-career journalists in underserved communities. Free Press Action organized and advocated for both of these results.
As Free Press Action has long advocated, Congress also could establish a public trust funded by a tax on digital advertising that could be administered by a new independent agency or by a retooled Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In turn, the funds would be disbursed to locally situated grantmaking bodies — such as municipal foundations, community boards, state universities and public libraries — that are best suited to identify their communities’ information needs.
This approach would still use massive digital-advertising revenues as a source of funding, without depending on hoped-for trickle-down impacts from cartels and conglomerate collusion. Unlike the JCPA, this sort of publicly administered and community-centered approach would invigorate the production of high-quality local journalism while strengthening communities and safeguarding a free and independent press.
Sanjay Jolly is the C. Edwin Baker fellow at Free Press Action, where Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy and communications.