Every day, what remains of the once-mighty ranks of journalists across this country publish stories designed to inform, entertain and expose.
Sometimes, they are the work of minutes, initial knowledge of current events such as fires, storms or even elections. Sometimes these are investigations that lasted years.
Inevitably, as soon as we publish, some rich guy with algorithms comes along and sweeps up that work for their own gain, like deodorant on a Target shelf. Each. Bachelor. History.
Retail theft causes civic collapse and inspires a ballot measure to incarcerate repeat toothpaste thieves.
But billionaire tech bros dismantling democracy for profit, stealing thousands of times a minute selling advertising for something that doesn’t belong to them? This barely elicits a shrug, even as more media workers are laid off, more publications close, and reliable information becomes so rare and hard to track down that the truth itself has become political.
“It’s sad on so many levels,” Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) told me when I asked him what he thought about recent media layoffs — including the loss of more than 100 my colleagues at this newspaper and the downsizing. in other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Time, Condé Nast and the Messenger.
In total, almost 600 jobs in the media sector were lost in January.
“It’s also sad in terms of democracy,” Umberg said.
Umberg and state Assembly member Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) are trying to do what other states have already done — stop the stealing — with a bill that, unsurprisingly, has sparked over a million dollars of lobbying from Big Tech to kill it. These expenses were discovered by Queenie Wong, a reporter for this newspaper who unfortunately participated in the layoffs, and forced Wicks and Umberg to suspend the measure last year.
They are determined to relaunch it this year – but this will depend on the purchasing capacity of their colleagues. Because, of course, there will be more money invested in killing it, and more pressure from Big Tech to keep this whole mess out of the public eye. This pressure will extend from the Assembly to the governor’s office.
If California does not pass Assembly Bill 886, it means our elected leaders are cowards or cowardly money thieves who are content to watch our democracy crumble in exchange for campaign contributions. Honestly, it’s that simple – and that disastrous.
“For me, it’s a fundamental question of fairness,” Wicks told me of the notion of Internet platforms paying a portion of their profits to news publishers. “I think it will be difficult for them to say they can’t do it here when they do it elsewhere.”
She’s referring to Australia and Canada, which are fed up with Big Tech simultaneously raking in advertising dollars on news content while claiming that only a few people actually search for information on their platforms.
Both countries have passed laws – although imperfect and heavily watered down by lobbying – that require Google and Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and others) to negotiate payments with news publishers.
A similar bill here in the United States, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2022, is going nowhere in the Republican-dominated Congress, where a far-right contingent that rose to power through propaganda and lies has little interest in controlling this. In.
Which leaves California in the lead – something the state is well-positioned to do with its economic might, strong enough to take on even the Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world.
“The lesson that can be learned from Canadian law is that [internet platforms] I will pay,” Haaris Mateen told me. “The people of California therefore have every right to demand that payments be made to journalism companies. »
Mateen is an assistant professor of finance at the University of Houston and has studied the issue. In November, he and his colleagues published a paper estimating that internet platforms would owe U.S. publishers between $11.9 billion and $13.9 billion a year if Congress passed the Journalism Preservation Act.
Using the same methodology, he estimates that Google would owe California news publishers $1.4 billion a year and that Facebook would owe $265 million a year. In 2023, Facebook’s revenues were $135 billion and Google’s parent company Alphabet’s revenues were $307 billion. So we’re not talking about putting these companies out of business.
“I want Google to succeed economically. I want them to become one of the richest companies in the world,” Wicks said. “I also want them to do the right thing.”
Mateen and his colleagues also found that internet platforms and news publishers offer “complementary services,” meaning they help each other make more money together than each would make alone – if the companies The Internet wasn’t just stealing their part of the equation.
Internet companies have long argued that the information has little value to them, or their users, and therefore there is nothing to pay for it. A former Internet executive recently claimed that it was a “silly complaint” to protest the use of information without compensation because publishing articles drives traffic to news sites and “Everyone wants traffic!
Traffic is excellent. But traffic without revenue is worthless. And the idea that people don’t search for information online seems highly suspect (but the data is owned by Internet companies).
Those Google searches for “Ukraine?” Are these really people looking for recipes for red borscht, and not information about the war?
Searching for “Los Angeles storm?” » Are users really not looking for information about current weather dangers, all from media outlets like NBC, Associated Press and, of course, the Los Angeles Times?
“Can you imagine a version of Google without news? » asks Mateen. “It would look like Amazon.”
But this is the main threat that Internet platforms use to thwart American or Californian legislation: if these laws are adopted, they will delete information from their sites. News publishers fear this, because even the paltry amount they currently earn from research is crucial to skyrocketing their bottom line.
In protest against Canadian law, Meta blocked access to information on its sites for Canadians this summer.
Pascale St-Onge, Minister of Canadian Heritage and MP, then warned that “Facebook is trying to send a message, not only to Canada, but to other countries such as New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. United. »
But Mateen said Canada is a much smaller market than the United States or even California, and it would be difficult for internet giants to impose that kind of ban here.
“The California government has a lot more negotiating power in this area,” he said.
Mateen also warns that the window to resolve the problem is closing.
The urgency to act now “is enormous” because the coming era of AI is poised to make the situation worse and more complicated, he warns.
We are already seeing experiments from companies using artificial intelligence to write news articles. The results have been far from impressive, but more is to come.
Mateen said that once technology improves, which it will quickly, platforms will scan articles and feed them into AI applications that mash them like potatoes and spit out something that They will double the original content.
These stories of stolen pieces will be edited and sufficiently linked to multiple sources that it will be impossible to trace anything back to a single original article.
No accountability, no trust – and no one to pay.
It’s imperative to set a precedent now that information has real value, so when AI sucks it all up, it’s reasonable for news companies to require their content to be licensed or otherwise compensated before it is destroyed and made impossible to follow.
The media cannot stop Big Tech itself. He has tried, with subscriptions, one-off deals like the Google-New York Times deal and other desperate but futile attempts to find “new models” that will somehow fill the gap revenue without preventing Internet platforms from doing what they want. without consequence.
There is, of course, more than one problem plaguing the news industry. But like retail theft, the news media needs a systemic solution: government intervention because the thieves are too powerful, too organized and too brazen.
Whether or not that happens will depend on what the public demands – whether we care as much about information theft as we do about deodorant.
Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from www.latimes.com