The JCPA: Myths and Realities of a Bad Journalism Bill
Legislation that’s being touted as a solution to the local-journalism crisis has reemerged in Washington as lawmakers reconvene to consider a final slate of bills before the holiday break and the end of the 117th Congress.
But the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) falls far short of the many inflated claims made by its boosters — who include lobbyists from trade groups representing the nation’s largest news and broadcast conglomerates. Those corporate concerns are even pushing to attach the hugely flawed JCPA to must-pass spending bills, hoping to hide the bill there and jam it through Congress without proper scrutiny.
The JCPA’s principal aim is to force Big Tech companies to pay outlets for linking to their news content. But the bill offers a trickle-down approach that is likely to lock in existing power relationships between established news organizations like the Murdochs’ News Corp. and digital platforms like Meta — while doing little to put more reporters on local beats, reverse the spread of news deserts, serve long-neglected communities or support the kinds of news innovation that represent local journalism’s brightest hopes.
Congressional supporters claim that the legislation will save local journalism, but they fail to grasp the fundamental shifts in the economics of news production that make the JCPA inadequate to the task. If preserving sputtering business models and entrenching incumbent enterprises is the goal, the JCPA is for you. But saving local journalism requires much, much more: that we put the news-and-information needs of everyone before the profit incentives of a few media giants.
Lucky for you, we’re here to debunk these JCPA myths and set the record straight.
MYTH: The JCPA is antitrust legislation
REALITY: JCPA backers describe the legislation as an antitrust measure, but in practice it’s pro-cartel and pro-trust. The JCPA would create an exemption from antitrust laws, which would allow conglomerate news publishers and broadcasters to collude on joint negotiations with Google and Meta.
In other words, the JCPA would allow news-media companies like Gannett, News Corp. and Sinclair Broadcast Group to form cartels to extract payments when platforms host their content in any way. But waiving antitrust restrictions in this manner would likely harm competition and consumers by propping up incumbent media companies and increasing their unhealthy codependency with the platforms. This would create more insurmountable barriers to entry for new and innovative models for engaged, independent, local journalism.
MYTH: The JCPA will help save local journalism
REALITY: The bill doesn’t just favor established (and in most cases still profitable) news outlets. It also ignores a fundamental facet of the journalism crisis: the thousands of U.S. communities with no local-news outlets (often referred to as news deserts). It’s hard to negotiate for subsidies for better local coverage if your community doesn’t have a local-news outlet to begin with.
The companies lobbying the hardest for the JCPA to pass — including Gannett, Sinclair Broadcast Group and the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital — are the same ones that have cut local newsrooms to the bone even as they’ve continued to buy back stocks, go deeper into debt to acquire even more local outlets, and use other financial gimmicks to enrich their owners, executives and shareholders. These companies aren’t journalism’s saviors. In many cases they are to blame for the creation of news deserts, having shuttered local operations across the country. They shouldn’t be rewarded for such slash-and-burn tactics.
MYTH: The JCPA won’t amplify the spread of hate and disinformation
REALITY: The Senate version of the JCPA contains dangerous language that Sen. Ted Cruz demanded. As lead Republican sponsor Sen. John Kennedy notes, this language would fully “bar the tech firms from throttling, filtering, suppressing or curating content.” This language suggests that, as a condition of striking these payment deals, Meta and Google cannot deplatform hate and disinformation. The bill even obligates these platforms to pay an outlet like Fox News for objectionable content — even if they decide not to amplify it — and it impacts or outright bars their ability to make such content-moderation choices.
This language highlights the true intent of many GOP supporters of such bills: to punish or prohibit platforms from removing hateful and deceitful content. Some Republicans continue to support this bill because they know it will have a devastating impact on content-moderation efforts, no matter how strenuously the JCPA’s Democratic supporters pretend otherwise.
MYTH: The JCPA is about economic fairness
REALITY: The JCPA’s most vocal supporters are lobbyists working for powerful media trade groups, most notably the National Association of Broadcasters and the News Media Alliance, which represents the biggest newspaper publishers. They seem to believe that offering a convoluted mechanism for corporate handouts to mostly profitable and consolidated media outlets is a fair way to address the information needs of communities that these same large chains routinely fail to serve.
While commercial outlets 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.
Once we recognize the miscues and market failures driving the journalism crisis, it becomes hard to justify simply handing money over to these same incumbents. This recognition requires we shift our focus away from bills like the JCPA toward public policy that creates funding for local-accountability journalism, including noncommercial initiatives.
MYTH: The JCPA is a sound economic solution to the journalism crisis
REALITY: The missteps of news conglomerates aside, we shouldn’t ignore how the evolution of digital technology has impacted local-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 also undermined the traditional business of local news.
But addressing this technological shift by subsidizing incumbents’ lost revenues doesn't account for the changing economics of local news, or consider new ways to meet communities’ information needs. It doesn't account for media conglomerates’ historic failure to provide news of, by and for Black and Brown people. There’s no path to effectively saving journalism that doesn’t support the repair that needs to happen to give long-neglected populations access to — and agency over — news coverage about their communities.
MYTH: The JCPA will put local reporters back on their beats
REALITY: The JCPA doesn’t require news-media companies to actually invest the money they would receive from the platforms in hiring more 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’s failure to tie revenue distribution to the hiring of newsroom workers. A Senate version of the JCPA explicitly forbids negotiated payments to the kinds of nonprofit local-news organizations that are helping to fill the massive reporting gaps created by a dysfunctional commercial sector. Under the JCPA, these groundbreaking startups don’t even have a seat at the table.
MYTH: The JCPA treats local journalism as a public good
REALITY: The JCPA is built on an antiquated for-profit view of local-news production. Its definition of “news content creator” centers on commercial business models. Yet some of the most innovative experiments in civic journalism are outlets like Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit’s Outlier Media and New York’s The City that are structured as nonprofits. That’s because local-accountability journalism — including investigative reporting and coverage of city-hall beats — is increasingly seen as a public good that the commercial outlets have been unable (or unwilling) to produce effectively or profitably.
JCPA supporters want the government to prop up commercial conglomerates without considering whether this would help address the actual problems facing local journalism and the communities that are in a news outlet's region. 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.
The JCPA is a corporate handout that uses “saving journalism” as a catchphrase for padding the profits of big media conglomerates. To really save local news we need legislation that supports local-accountability journalism by putting reporters back on local beats and expanding coverage in communities that the Murdochs and their ilk will never serve.