Want to save journalism? Tax the attention economy

Way, way back in 2009 as Facebook was celebrating its fifth anniversary, CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergBorder Patrol chief was member of secret Facebook group for agents: report Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak urges Facebook users to delete their accounts Trump's legal battles over census go public MORE blogged that the company was founded “to give people the tools to engage and understand the world around them.”

In the 10 years since then, Facebook’s user base has multiplied more than 10 times. But instead of giving people the tools to better understand the world, Zuckerberg’s creation has hastened the global spread of misinformation designed to divide populations and manipulate voters.

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At the same time, news organizations are laying off scores of hard-working journalists, those we rely on to set the record straight. Since 2004, about 20 percent of U.S. newspapers have stopped printing, leaving nearly 200,000 newsroom employees without work and at least 900 communities without anyone covering local news.

While the news industry is in free fall, Facebook rode its year of nonstop scandals to record profits, reporting a net fourth-quarter income in 2018 of nearly $6.9 billion, up 61 percent from the same period in 2017.

The most recent rounds of layoffs, including sizable cuts at digital news sites Buzzfeed, HuffPost and Vice, have awakened people to just how dire the economics of news have become. If we don’t act now, the downward spiral for local and independent journalism may be irreversible, with harrowing consequences for our democracy.
We need an ambitious but achievable proposal that would put journalists back to work and restore some of the valuable news and information communities have lost. And the platforms — plus anybody else getting rich off the “attention economy” — should pay for it.

To be fair, Silicon Valley isn’t entirely to blame for journalism’s misfortune: Greedy media conglomerates and hedge funds deserve a large share of the blame. But the shift to a data-intensive advertising model dominated by Facebook and Google has taken a serious toll.

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This model allows advertisers to target their products to a market segment of one. Such fine-tuned marketing requires staggering amounts of data on each consumer’s likes, dislikes, habits and history — information that platforms have in surplus and most news organizations lack.

In a new report released today, we call for the creation of a tax on this targeted advertising to fund the kinds of diverse, local, independent and noncommercial journalism that’s gone missing, and to support new distribution models, especially those that don’t use data harvesting and its related advertising model for revenue.
Think of it like a carbon tax, which many countries impose on the oil industry to help clean up pollution. The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms undermine journalism and amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse.

The money generated by a very small tax on ads sold by fantastically profitable companies like Facebook and Google could fund a new and independent Public Interest Media Endowment that would hand out grants to support local-news startups, sustain investigative projects, seed civic-engagement initiatives, and lift up diverse voices that have been excluded from traditional media coverage for too long.

For example, a 2-percent ad tax on all online enterprises that in 2018 earned more than $200 million in annual digital-ad revenues would yield more than $1.8 billion a year for the endowment.

With an act of Congress, such an endowment could be spent in ways that ensure editorial independence and protect grant recipients from political interference.

While this wouldn’t solve all of journalism’s problems, such an investment underscores the vital role noncommercial, independent journalism plays in seeking truth and holding the powerful to account.

The platforms themselves are at least aware of the harm they’re doing. In the past year, executives at both Facebook and Google have pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to support journalism initiatives.

But putting the fate of U.S. journalism in the hands of Silicon Valley billionaires is a dangerous game. People would be much better served by a publicly accountable system with a consistent funding mechanism.

It’s one thing for executives like Zuckerberg and Larry Page to promise to tackle misinformation after yet another high-profile scandal. But we shouldn’t leave it to them to figure out the future of journalism.

This moment calls for a public response: The American people and our elected leaders must hold the online platforms and exploitative advertisers to account, and do what it takes to repair and revitalize a news ecosystem in crisis. Making the platforms pay their fair share to help clean up the mess they’ve created is a good way to start.

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy and communications at Free Press. Craig Aaron is Free Press President and CEO.