Digital Media Is Suffocating — and It’s Facebook and Google’s Fault

Laura Bassett • May 6, 2019

Newsrooms across the country are laying off journalists, because the ad dollars generated from their work all filter up to Big Tech.

Roughly 2,400 journalists and media staffers in the United States lost our jobs in the first few months of 2019.

I was laid off in January, after nearly a decade in my newsroom. The Huffington Post had hired me in November 2009 to write what Arianna Huffington called the “flesh and blood” stories of the recession — people losing their jobs, plunging underwater on their mortgages, hocking their wedding rings to put food on the table. My first beat was economic suffering. I didn’t understand at the time that journalism was staring down its own Great Recession.

We at HuffPost knew the cuts were coming. They’d been the subject of happy-hour chats for weeks. Verizon, our parent company, had declared our website essentially worthless in late 2018 and directed staff reductions across the board. Even so, my own layoff came as a shock. As a senior politics reporter for the site who represented it on cable news every weekend, my job had felt like an integral part of my identity.

In a brief, surreal phone call, my boss told me she’d had to make some tough choices and that my job had been eliminated. I had five hours to clean off my desk, turn in my laptop, phone, and badge, and say goodbye to the newsroom that had been a second home to me. A sympathetic colleague handed me a miniature bottle of red wine and a plastic cup.

In the days that followed, what was harder than losing my job was having to watch the whole industry start to crumble along with it. BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent of its staff the day after Verizon eliminated my job at HuffPostVicelayoffs came soon after. Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, cut 400 jobs from local papers. In April, more job cuts hit the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which has shrunk to less than a tenth of its former size over the past few years, leaving just 33 journalists to cover a metro area of two million people. Last week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune was folded into a competitor, ending a 182-year run, with its entire staff, including 65 editors and reporters, let go.

Tom Feran, a 66-year-old reporter at the Plain Dealer who heroically volunteered to be laid off to save the job of a younger staffer, aptly described the feeling as that of “a cartoon character running off a cliff into space and then looking down and noticing I’m not standing on solid ground anymore. Or like the end of ‘She’s So Heavy,’ by the Beatles, which just suddenly ends.”

Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market, consuming more than 60 percent of all revenue.

I have never paid much attention to the financial side of journalism. But since being laid off, I’ve made it my mission to understand the existential threat news publishers are facing from Big Tech. Companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google are using their tech muscle to monetize news for their own profit, but at the expense of the newswriters. Google and Facebook dominate the digital ad market, consuming more than 60 percent of all revenue.

Apple is leveraging its iPhone and Mac users to roll out its own news subscription product, Apple News+. Sadly, this product undercuts the subscriptions sold by existing publishers while Apple takes 50 percent of the revenue.

Google is also planning a policy change that would severely undermine news gathering. The company is reportedly considering restricting third-party cookies in its Chrome web browser, which it could announce as soon as its annual conference on May 7. Cookies are the largely unseen infrastructure on which the online marketplace runs. Cookies allow websites that provide free content to also collect anonymized data on users’ interests, giving advertisers critical information about the market for their products. This value exchange is necessary to support nearly every site on the internet, but it is the lifeblood of digital journalism. An online advertisement without a third-party cookie sells for just 2 percent of the cost of the same ad with the cookie.

Google will likely frame its policy change in terms of online privacy — a real and important concern for Americans. But if Google restricts or eliminates third-party cookies on Chrome, the collection of user data for profit won’t go away. Tech giants will continue building dossiers on every American who uses the internet. The move would simply force publishers to use Google as a middleman for advertising sales, giving Google a cut of the ad revenue that would otherwise go to hiring journalists.

Tech companies are well aware of their negative impact on journalism and have pledged $600 million toward efforts to support it. But this is a drop in the bucket compared to the damage they have caused. $600 million is a small price to pay to ensure publishers become more reliant on the data Google and Facebook harvest from users across their multiple platforms. It would be far more helpful for them to facilitate a flow of digital advertising dollars back to the publishers who hire the journalists and create the content, instead of tweaking their policies in ways that make it even harder for a digital news site to sell an ad.

A robust and well-funded news media is vital to a healthy democracy. The public should be aware of Big Tech’s death grip on publishers, particularly as Google weighs a potentially devastating policy change that few people understand. And more broadly, lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle should be discussing legislative solutions to regulate or break up the tech giants and restore fairness to the digital ad market.

It’s uncomfortable for journalists to talk or write about ourselves, or to elevate an issue that’s in our own self-interest. We’re taught not to be the story. But as the president attacks us with dangerous rhetoric, and tech monopolies siphon off our revenue streams, it’s never been more necessary for us to link arms to fight for the health and future of our industry. One or two companies should not have the power to cripple the free press in the United States.

Laura Bassett is a former HuffPost senior politics reporter who was among the many laid off in January 2019.