Inside the media industry’s struggle to take on Silicon Valley

Opinion

U.S. news companies are using a playbook from Europe to challenge the online platforms they see as an existential threat.

Executives from some of the biggest U.S. news organizations met with a British economist last fall at Washington’s exclusive Metropolitan Club to strategize on a mutual obsession: getting their industry out from under the thumb of Google and Facebook.

Over a breakfast of bacon and eggs in a private banquet room, executives from CNN, USA Today and Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones listened intently as Dame Frances Cairncross described how British publishers are navigating the internet giants’ domination of the news business, an attendee from the media delegation told POLITICO. During the session, the details of which have not been previously disclosed, Cairncross in turn sought the perspective of the American media for a report, commissioned by then-Prime Minister Theresa May, on the fate of journalism in the digital age.

The meeting was part of an ongoing campaign by news publishers in the U.S. and Europe to counter the growing power of Silicon Valley — a significant, if often overlooked, aspect of the anti-tech backlash brewing on both sides of the Atlantic. And it comes amid an existential struggle for most U.S. news companies, at a time when Google and Facebook control 60 percent of online ad dollars and can decide the fate of newsrooms by tweaking their algorithms.

The news companies’ efforts have taken many forms, including complaints with regulators and lawmakers in multiple countries about tech’s alleged antitrust or copyright violations. But the American publishers’ major focus at the moment is persuading Congress to grant them an exemption from antitrust law, which would let them combine forces to negotiate the terms of the online platforms’ use of their news content.

That effort, which recently got a plug from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, echoes the tactic behind a new European Union copyright directive that gives publishers greater economic leverage against tech. That EU law is the result of years of hit-or-miss efforts to combat what the media companies call a Google-Facebook “digital duopoly.”

U.S. media advocates say they have drawn major lessons from discussions with their European counterparts, including the need to band together and put aside their traditional rivalries.

“The European publishers have been ahead of us,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, which represents about 2,000 media organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. “The biggest lesson learned is that you need collective action by the publishers. No one publisher, even a really big publisher, in itself can impact the relationship with the platforms. You need everybody to coordinate.”

The combatants include some of the media industry’s biggest players — among them the major German publisher Axel Springer SE as well as News Corp., the U.S. company founded by Rupert Murdoch that owns Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. (Axel Springer is the co-owner, along with POLITICO, of POLITICO Europe.) The involvement of such media powerhouses has inspired some eye-rolling among some Silicon Valley defenders in Washington, even if the vast majority of U.S. newsrooms have spent the past decade in an economic free fall.

“If only somebody would help Rupert Murdoch,” quipped Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of the tech trade group NetChoice, whose members include Facebook and Google.

Chavern, a former U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive, has repeatedly traveled to Europe to learn from his EU counterparts about their combat with tech. During a January trip to Berlin, he met with VG Media, a so-called collecting society that serves as a clearinghouse for fees owed to news publishers, and sat down with Axel Springer’s chief lobbyist, Dietrich von Klaeden.

Chavern said he plans to head back to the continent in the fall.

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