Newspaper Group’s Hope for Antitrust Exemption Is a Hail Mary Pass

The news came by way of a softball pitch of a story from the New York Times: The News Media Alliance — a group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America — says it plans to ask Congress for a special exemption from antitrust regulations. Why? So that its members can work together to negotiate with Google and Facebook for better terms.

According to the story in the Times (which is a member of the Alliance and supports the lobbying effort) the group’s plan isn’t just about the fight for digital territory, “it’s about the endurance of quality journalism,” which the paper says is “expensive to produce, and under economic pressure as never before” from fake news that gets promoted by Facebook.

If you feel a twinge of something when you read that, you’re not alone. The first thing I thought was “So quality journalism only comes from the members of the News Media Alliance?” That’s some excessive hubris you’ve got there, folks.

This sense of entitlement is at the core of what the NMA is proposing. In effect, it is suggesting that mainstream newspaper companies are the only entities capable of producing quality journalism, and therefore they deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card so they can engage in what amounts to collusion. And they are hoping Congress will see Google and Facebook as the enemy.

Here’s a thought: What if these newspaper companies had spent a little more time trying to compete over the past decade or so, instead of relying on their historic market control to keep their profits rolling in? What if more had tried to improve their websites and their mobile versions, so that users wouldn’t install ad blockers, or turn to other solutions like Facebook Instant Articles?

Every single competitive threat the newspaper industry has faced, from Craigslist to Facebook, has been visible long before it decimated the industry’s profits, and most of the newspapers in the NMA did little or nothing to deal with them until it was too late.

Would Facebook and Google have become just as dominant in the advertising business if that had happened? Probably. But only because they can offer demographic targeting that no newspaper has even tried to produce, let alone succeeded at producing. And in Google’s case, it controls much of the “programmatic” or automated ad bidding market, which has driven prices down.

As Ben Thompson noted in an essay on the topic for his subscription newsletter Stratechery (which I encourage you to subscribe to), the case made by the NMA is based on a myth: The group argues that it needs help negotiating with Google and Facebook so that it can repair the damage done to its quality journalism business. But quality journalism has never actually been a business

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