Janine Jackson interviewed Free Press Action’s Florín Nájera-Uresti about preserving journalism for the July 14, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Headlines suggest the California Journalism Preservation Act is a pretty good thing: “Help Democracy by Helping Newspapers” and “What Stories Go Unreported When a Local Newspaper Fades?” evoke concern with the very real loss of local news and of journalism jobs, and the societal harms that come with that.
And “Making Google and Meta Pay for News They Profit From,” “Your Local Newspaper Does the Work; Big Tech Reaps the Ad Dollars,” “Meta Threatens to Pull News Posts From Facebook, Instagram if California Bill Becomes Law,” and “California Lawmakers Advance Journalism Bill, Resist Big Tech Bullying.”
Well, they all suggest that the legislation found the right enemies. So why do advocates like our guest think that it’s good news, really, that the act in its current form has been shelved for the moment?
Florín Nájera-Uresti is California campaign organizer for the advocacy group Free Press Action. She joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome to CounterSpin, Florín Nájera-Uresti.
Florín Nájera-Uresti: Thank you, Janine. Happy to be here.
JJ: Let me just ask you, what did the California Journalism Preservation Act, also known as Assembly Bill or AB886, what did it say it would do, and why is it that, at least in its current form, you don’t think it would get us there, and might even take us somewhere worse?
FN: So the California Journalism Preservation Act is a bill that was designed to create a mechanism that would allow news outlets to extract payments from Big Tech companies, including search engines that feature content linking to their news sites. And so there was a lot of excitement around the bill for that reason.
Unfortunately, due to the mechanism of the bill as a link tax, the intended outcome was unlikely to be achieved, and there is no guarantee that any of the money funneled through this bill would go to supporting high-quality local content and journalists.
This bill was modeled in many respects after the Federal Journalism Competition Preservation Act, which was recently reintroduced in Congress after failing to pass in the last session. The CJPA, the California version of the bill, differs from the proposed federal bill in that it creates an even more explicit link tax, where payment is based directly on the number of online impressions of links to news sites on social networks and search engines.
And because of this current approach that rewards clicks, it creates more of an incentive for the production of clickbait and low-quality journalism, in addition to altering the way the open internet works.
So the bill as drafted fails to consider the news and information needs of Californians, and instead of uplifting the production of civic information as a public good, it creates a giveaway to the bill’s most vocal proponents, which include large corporate media outlets, conglomerates. And these are the folks who have actually stopped investing in local news, and are responsible for a majority of the mass layoffs in local newsrooms.
JJ: So when you say “link tax,” I think that’s something that might be a new phrase to people. That really was going to be, if a search engine or if Facebook links to a local news story, they were going to be taxed on that? I mean, is it as direct as it sounds?
FN: Yeah, that’s right. So the bill, as it was written, would essentially tax the number of impressions, or the amount of times a link is shown on social media sites and search engines.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the content of the publisher’s website is available on the social media or search engine site, but simply that it is linked to it, perhaps with a short snippet or a headline.
JJ: And then what turned up in pretty much all of the articles that I read was, with this tax—and we can talk about in a second who is going to be considered a journalistic outlet that can even get in this process—but the big selling point, as far as news coverage, was the proceeds from this tax, 70% of them, were going to be spent on “news journalists…and maintaining or enhancing the production and distribution of news or information.”
That, on its face, sounds good. And 70% sounds like a good number, but it wasn’t clear how that was going to work.
FN: Yeah, it’s exactly like you said. It seems like a very attractive point of the bill, but unfortunately, this provision that at first seems to hold publishers accountable for hiring more journalists or increasing salaries—salaries to the journalists that they already employ, actually, through regular accounting practices—could easily result in an extremely difficult way to track where these funds are spent.
Policy initiatives such as these rarely have this desired impact, because money is fungible, and it’s extremely difficult to ensure that these funds are spent according to the purpose or intent of this legislation.
JJ: I think language is so formative here. Like, bigger picture, including with the federal legislation, there’s a difference between “Let’s shore up our existing newspapers” and “Let’s meet the information needs of the community.” Obviously, there can be overlap or confluence there, but those are really two different goals, aren’t they? And they entail different processes.
FN: Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re trying to get at. What we want to uplift in our communities, and what Californians really need, is community-centered, truly local and responsive journalism, not just propping up an industry that the ad-supported market is already not supporting.
So what we want to see is the increase of this public good, and that’s where policy intervention should come in.
JJ: We often hear—and particularly with, as you know, the very imperfect work of legislative politics—we often hear not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Sometimes something starts out not great, but you work with it, and it gets better.
But we also know that inadequate or wrongly directed reform efforts can make it harder, then, for better ones to advance. People sort of feel like, well, we already tried that, or they just get issue fatigue.
So it seems important to say, with regard to this, that this is not just saying no to this, it’s the fact that we actually have better alternatives, right?
FN: Absolutely. And, fortunately, in our work partnering and working with local stakeholders and community newsrooms across the state, like El Tímpano, the coalition of local newsrooms known as LION Publishers, and other individuals, including local journalists, we know that there are much better alternatives to consider.
Our work in New Jersey and elsewhere has shown us that lawmakers can pass really innovative legislation that can actually lead to more informed communities, more reporters on the ground, and sustainable, independent and community-rooted locally.
JJ: And I always think, every time I talk about fighting privatization or making something public, making institutions more public or more accountable, it’s not just an outcome—it’s a process.
And I know that this is part of what you’ve been trying to say, is that it’s not like we’re going to make something for the community and then give it to them. People have to be involved in the earliest stages of creating something, so that it is accountable.
FN: Yeah. And we are in a position where lawmakers can really listen to the concerns of local news advocates and communities that have actually suffered due to the absence of this quality coverage.
So we really hope to work with both our communities and lawmakers in this next phase of the legislative process, to make sure that these folks are heard, and that this results in well-designed policy that actually achieves the goals we’re setting out to achieve.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Florín Nájera-Uresti, California campaign organizer for Free Press Action. You can track their work online at FreePress.net. Florín Nájera-Uresti, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
FN: Thank you for having me, Janine.
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This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.