Why platforms should pay for polluting our civic discourse

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Targeted online ads and data harvesting are incredibly lucrative for the platforms but harmful for local newsrooms and the communities they’re supposed to serve. The shift in eyeballs and ad dollars to the platforms has hastened the collapse of the traditional advertising marketplace that once helped sustain quality local journalism. This collapse has led to widespread layoffs, which has meant less of the content that readers are willing to pay for, which has resulted in more cutbacks and the continuation of a vicious cycle. Quality journalism, in-depth investigative reporting and watchdogs on the beat are antidotes to mistrust and misinformation. So when the market is failing to provide the news we need, we can’t just shrug and hope that someone somewhere will come up with a new business model someday. We need to do something about it.

The Colorado Media Projects’s new report, Local News is a Public Good: Public Pathways for Supporting Coloradans’ Civic News and Information Needs in the 21st Century, lifts up a number of novel approaches that promise a path out of the current downward spiral. One of them is an idea my organization Free Press has proposed: taxing targeted online advertising to fund local journalism. In our report Beyond Fixing Facebook, we estimate that a 2 percent tax on targeted ads in the United States could generate $2 billion a year.

While a tax on targeted ads won’t solve all the problems facing journalism, it could go a long way toward ensuring there are fewer Denver Guardians — and more guardians of democracy keeping an eye on local officials, talking to local residents, and finding out what’s happening in our communities.

[Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press and Free Press Action.]

Why platforms should pay for polluting our civic discourse