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Trib CEO Jennifer Bertetto in Senate testimony: Local publishers should be able to bargain with digital giants

Local news outlets should be able to negotiate for fair compensation from large digital platforms that use their content, Trib Total Media President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto testified Wednesday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee.
Bertetto spoke in favor of a measure that she said would ensure the survival of news outlets that provide information for communities that would otherwise be overlooked.

“Who is going to report on New Kensington, Pennsylvania, if my company isn’t doing that?” Bertetto told the Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights, headed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The hearing in Washington focused on proposed legislation aiming to help news publishers in an era when most Americans consume news through digital platforms.
Klobuchar — along with Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., and Reps. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-N.Y. — introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.

The legislation would allow news publishers to collectively negotiate with digital platforms.

“As the daughter of a newspaperman, I understand the important role journalism plays in our democracy,” Klobuchar said, adding that “local news is facing a crisis.”
Since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers across the country have closed and many that remain are “on life support,” Klobuchar said.

Newspapers nationwide have had to downsize and reduce coverage as they struggle to compete with digital giants like Facebook and Google, who are “not friends to journalism,” she said.

“The real problem is a lack of revenue,” she said, noting that Google and Facebook don’t properly compensate news agencies for content.

While Google reported about $61 billion in advertising revenue over a recent three-month period, U.S. newspapers have seen revenue drop from about $37 billion in 2008 to around $9 billion in 2020, Klobuchar said.

“We need to step in to level the playing field,” she said. She said that preserving local journalism is a key element of protecting the First Amendment.

Bertetto said Trib Total Media — a company of 272 employees with daily and weekly newspapers and hyperlocal community news websites — has witnessed the trends that Klobuchar described firsthand.

In response to changing demands, Bertetto said the company has shifted its focus from print to digital. The company’s flagship website, TribLIVE.com, draws more than 300 million page views annually. Access to the site is free, which Bertetto said is “a testament to our commitment to the community and to making news accessible.”

But even with the emphasis on digital platforms, Bertetto said, Trib Total Media has faced struggles seen in newsrooms throughout the nation.

In 2015, the company restructured its business plan, closing two newspapers, selling three more and laying off more than 150 employees. The next year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review printed its final print edition before moving all reporting in that market online.

“These decisions were essential to stay in business, but they had ramifications to this day,” Bertetto said. “Several communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania are considered news deserts — not served by any local newspaper.”

Bertetto said she has to determine which local communities served by Trib Total Media are covered by a full-time reporter and which ones are covered by a part-time reporter or no reporter at all. Having added revenue from Google and Facebook would alleviate some of that burden and allow for more complete news coverage, she said.

Bertetto said Trib Total Media gets about $144,000 from Google each year, which is a small amount compared to the $7 million that the company needs to pay its journalists in a year.

“Our readers rely on us for the information they are literally not going to get anywhere else,” she said. “That is covering school board meetings. That is covering city government. That is letting them know when the bridge is out in their community. That is letting them know when the senior citizen center is going to be open during the winter months as warming stations.”

Trib Total Media also provides much of that information to local television stations, she said.

Joel Oxley, general manager at Washington, D.C.-based WTOP news, echoed similar struggles.

“Something has to change if you want local journalism to survive,” he said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the judiciary committee, cited Chicago as an example. He said the news market there has “disintegrated” and news conferences are rarely covered by reporters.

“We need people who are asking tough questions of politicians like myself,” he said.

Hal Singer, managing director of Washington, D.C.-based Econ One Research, compared Google and Facebook’s monopoly of the digital advertising industry to “a school bully eating a smaller child’s lunch.”

Without taking action to stop them, he said, local journalism could crumble, and that would lead to greater societal issues. Without local journalism, there would be more misinformation, less diversity of viewpoints and less efficient local governments, Singer said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke against the legislation, arguing that it would create “cartels.” He blamed the decline of the newspaper industry on other factors.
While acknowledging that news publishers have “a legitimate beef with Google and Facebook,” he said their downfall is really because of poor business decisions and “failure to take into account evolving technologies to adapt their business model.”

Bertetto acknowledged the industry has made “missteps” and suggested the legislation could work in conjunction with other solutions to help an industry that is struggling to compete with digital giants.

“There is a responsibility on each of us as publishers to work on other solutions that make our businesses successful,” she said.

Julia Felton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia at 724-226-7724, jfelton@triblive.com or via Twitter .