Newspapers on quest to level search playing field


A couple weeks ago, as I flipped through my edition of The Oklahoman newspaper I was confronted by end-of-the-world sized type in a full-page advertisement.

“DON’T LET BIG TECH CANCEL LOCAL NEWS,” the headline screamed.

Beneath it were a couple of paragraphs of text, one of which read:

“Local news strengthens our community, but local newspapers across the country are under threat. Big Tech takes advantage of the news and information created by local publishers, but they won’t pay for it.”

The ad was placed by a newspaper industry group and targeted “Big Tech” giants Google and Facebook, although neither were named in the copy.

In the ad, the newspaper group urged Congress to adopt an antitrust “safe harbor” law — the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA). That legislation would allow newspapers to negotiate collectively for payments from Google and Facebook for using headlines and snippets of their work in search results.

We all use these sites. When users click on the headlines surfaced on a Google search, they are linked back to the full stories on the original newspaper websites. 

I was intrigued.

I thought newspapers welcomed traffic driven from Google or Facebook to their websites, because they are in a desperate battle for readers and for survival as an industry.

Online readership has become a critical element to sustaining newspapers into the future. I thought readers following a headline back to the original newspaper website would be like a gift from God.

I’ll give you an example:

Let’s say there’s been an oil well explosion near Cordell in Southwest Oklahoma. I hear a rumor of the explosion at the grocery store, so I do a Google search for oil well, explosion and Cordell.

Google returns a headline from the Cordell Beacon, which I click on to read the Beacon’s story in its website. Google drove that traffic to the Cordell paper. 

Brett Wesner
Brett Wesner

That’s not the complete story, says Brett Wesner, president of Wesner Publications, which publishes the Cordell Beacon. Wesner also is chair of the National Newspaper Association, an industry group that represents thousands of smaller community newspapers nationwide.

While newspapers need the traffic driven from aggregators like Google, the tech giants sell billions of dollars in advertising to their own websites based on the content they present and the eyeballs it attracts.

“Google and Facebook generated $4 million in U.S. advertising revenue every 15 minutes during the first quarter of 2022,” Wesner wrote in an editorial that has been widely distributed. “That amount could fund hundreds of local journalists in every state in the country.”

Wesner is a Cordell native and San Francisco resident, from where he oversees his Wesner Publications group, which includes 10 community newpapers across the state. A Brown University graduate, he was David Boren’s press secretary in the late 1980s.

newsad1Traffic generated from Google and Facebook is critical to newspapers, Wesner said. Yet, the news those publications generate is just as important to the tech giants, he insisted.

If Google or Facebook lost access to Cordell news because the Beacon refused to allow it to post anything, it wouldn’t cause much of a ripple.

“But what if everybody started doing that?” Wesner asked in reply to my question about the JCPA “safe harbor” legislation. “Then when you Googled the Uvalde shooting, for instance, the only listings you get are your crazy uncle Bill’s rantings on a Facebook post. You don’t have access to any real media takes. If you Googled them, if those were the only listings you got, how credible would that make them on news issues. Not very.

“So, we need them. They need us.”

And that brings us to the proposed bipartisan legislation that seems to have a lot of Congressional support. But it’s slow moving.

“I think we will get to the negotiating table,” Wesner said. “I think they JCPA will be the path for that. We have had a lot of support from both sides of the aisle.”

The U.S. industry has a template for Google and Facebook payments for content. Both the European Union and Australia have recently passed legislation that requires the tech giants to compensate local news outlets for using their content. 

How much money would newspapers expect to gain from collective negotiations with Google and Facebook?

“We don’t know the answer to that until we begin negotiating,” Wesner said. “The problem is we can’t even begin negotiating without this antitrust legislation.”

The search for a solution continues.