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SACRAMENTO — On Thursday, the California State Assembly passed the California Journalism Preservation Act (the “CJPA”), legislation that creates a convoluted and messy negotiating mechanism that would allow publishers to extract payments from Big Tech companies, including search engines that feature content linking to their stories.

The CJPA is a giveaway to the bill’s most vocal proponents: large corporate media outlets, including those that have stopped investing in local news and are responsible for mass layoffs in local newsrooms. The bill is modeled in many respects after failed federal legislation, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which faced strong opposition from civil- and digital-rights groups, small publishers and community advocates. The CJPA differs from the federal legislation in its more explicit creation of a link tax, where payment is based on the number of online impressions driven by URLs featured on social networks and search engines.

Last month, a similar coalition of California groups urged state lawmakers to oppose the CJPA, arguing that the bill would harm both the state’s local-news ecosystem and the open internet. “The bill would also incentivize the spread of clickbait and misinformation while simultaneously making it harder for social-media platforms to remove toxic content,” the groups wrote.

The legislation now moves to California’s State Senate. If signed into law, the CJPA would establish a complex arbitration process. Arbitrators would take a percentage of large internet platforms’ advertising revenues and distribute that money as “journalism usage fee” payments to “eligible digital journalism providers” based purely on the number of times their links are displayed — not on whether their content is actually serving California communities or performing public-service journalism.

Free Press Action, which has a California membership of more than 100,000 people, has directed hundreds of calls from Californians to state lawmakers urging them to oppose the CJPA. As the bill moves to the Senate, Free Press Action, our California members and our allies will continue to work with lawmakers, community-based publishers and impacted communities to oppose this bill and advocate for policy solutions that benefit the public and local media.

Free Press Action Senior Director of Journalism and Civic Information Mike Rispoli said:

“Californians need better access to high-quality local reporting to participate in civic affairs, share their stories, connect with fellow community members and ensure public accountability. The California Journalism Preservation Act would serve none of those needs. Instead, it would accelerate the loss of locally engaged outlets while creating a more toxic information environment that rewards sensationalist clickbait over public-interest journalism. The only thing this bill would preserve is the profitable bottom lines of many of the very same corporations and hedge funds that have decimated local news and laid off thousands of hard-working reporters.

“We’ve heard some supporters of the legislation say: ‘Doing something is better than nothing.’ But passing the CJPA would make things much worse for California’s local-news landscape and Californians who need high-quality journalism to participate in our democracy. The destruction of local news across the state threatens the most fundamental of civic democratic values. This information crisis has hit low-income people, people of color, rural communities and non-English speakers the hardest. The CJPA, however, doesn’t even attempt to direct support to communities most underserved by local news. Because its payments are based solely on popularity, the CJPA instead would reward the worst kinds of content, resulting in an internet ecosystem where more hate speech, misinformation and sensationalist clickbait proliferate online.

“There are far better ways to create more and better local independent news, grow the state’s journalist corps and meet the needs of communities. Free Press Action was instrumental in creating the Civic Information Consortium in New Jersey that invests state funding to local-news outlets that are deeply engaged in serving their communities’ information needs. We have also proposed a tax on online advertising revenues that would support a funding mechanism for public-interest media that would help revitalize local independent journalism and strengthen democracy.

“California lawmakers who want to support local news and ensure those they serve have access to high-quality information should look toward these solutions and others that center the needs of the public, not the Big Media lobby. That should include engaging with communities most impacted by the lack of local news and information — a key constituency that has been completely shut out and ignored during this process.

“The CJPA fails to properly address the causes of the state’s journalism crisis: namely, runaway media consolidation, mismanagement, changing consumer habits and a lack of market incentive to produce public-interest journalism. And the bill isn’t designed to prioritize working journalists, or promote the sorts of community-centered news and information that we need most.

“While the bill’s sponsor has introduced several amendments that at first glance appear to address concerns raised by members in the committee phase, the amendments would not actually fix the problems that are inherent in this kind of link-tax approach. Regardless of the sponsor’s attempts, this bill would disproportionately harm small publishers that serve communities of color.  

“The amended version of the CJPA still contains sweeping loopholes that would allow large publishers to receive funds and decrease the number of journalists they employ, and there is nothing that would require these companies to produce public-interest information. The bottom line is that the CJPA’s pay-to-link scheme can’t be amended because it’s based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the local-journalism crisis.

“The California State Senate needs to reject this legislation outright, and return to the drawing board. Any legislation that primarily benefits TV conglomerates, hedge funds, out-of-state publications and clickbait profiteers will not fix the local-news crisis. State lawmakers can and must do a lot better than the CJPA.”

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