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5 minutes with journalist Matt Pearce

portrait of Matt Pearce with fountain pen and newspaper icons behind it. The image reads "5 minutes with Matt Pearce, President of Media Guild of the West"

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

The latest battle between Big Tech and journalism is happening in California, where Google is blocking local news from appearing in search results for some users. Google says it’s removing links to California news websites during a short-term test for a small percentage of users in the state to measure the impact of proposed legislation.

The California Journalism Preservation Act would make tech giants like Google, Meta and Microsoft pay news outlets a fee to carry links to news articles, which would be calculated as a percentage of ad revenue. The bill is pending in the California State Legislature and could become law this year.

It would be the first measure of its kind in the U.S., but Australia and Canada have adopted similar laws.

In a company blog, Google said the pending bill is the wrong approach to supporting journalism and puts the news industry at risk.

Matt Pearce — a longtime journalist for the Los Angeles Times and president of the Media Guild of the West, a local union of the NewsGuild — wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle on the topic. He recently spoke with The Current about the future of journalism and how Generative AI (GenAI) could impact everything.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you give me your overall reaction to Google taking these measures?

This is a bargaining tactic by Google that we have seen Big Tech companies — including Meta, carry out against democratically elected governments around the world — [It] happened in Australia; [it’s] happened in Canada.

There has been a movement among news publishers in many countries internationally and now at the state level here in the United States to make massive tech platforms pay back some of the profits that they have earned from scraping and displaying our journalism. Publishers would have to spend 70% of those revenues on newsroom payroll. So, this is a jobs bill.

How much of it is Google, or whichever Big Tech platform, throwing their weight around to try to stop something?

You have to understand that what California does is a big deal for Google. I don't think you can really think about this only as a California-specific piece of legislation.

This bill in California would be the first time in the United States that a state government would force Google to pay news publishers for their journalism. And if California succeeds in that, it becomes the template for many other states to look at doing a similar intervention to make Google pay for journalism as well.

Illinois has already introduced a copycat version of this legislation. So, it's hard to evaluate Google's actions here in California specifically only as a California law, because for them they have to think about the endgame. How big is the bar tab going to be if every state in the United States adopted a policy like this? Or if Congress passes a version of this type of legislation?

So really, this is the tip of the iceberg for them. And so, they have every reason to bargain hard.

To hear more from Matt, listen to this episode of The Current Report:

Alden Capital, the hedge fund that now owns several news organizations, called what Google is doing a bully tactic. What do you think of Alden stepping in to oppose Google?

This is one of those places where the enemy of my enemy is ironically my friend. My local [union], which is Media of the West, we’re a local union of the News Guild. We represent journalists in Southern California, Arizona and Texas. And so not only do we represent journalists at the Los Angeles Times, we also represent journalists at the Southern California News Group, which is a chain of newspapers in Southern California that is owned by Alden Global Capital, an infamous hedge fund.

No one hates Alden Global Capital more than we do. We are literally unionizing their newsrooms and going on strike against them and threatening strikes against them and negotiating hard with them at the bargaining table. What I'm less clear about is whether we can survive without Google or Meta.

They have accumulated a massive amount of bargaining power against these news companies that we hate. The bottom line here is, as journalists, we can't bargain for money that isn't there when we're talking about wages for workers. We're talking about the productivity of our labor and the productivity of that economic activity that we generate.

Speaking completely separately from journalism as a public good and a service to our communities, what the numbers would say is that our work actually generates a lot more economic activity than is reflected in the kind of revenues that news companies bring in. That's not just true for Alden. It’s not just true for Gannett. It’s true for places that are family-owned like the Los Angeles Times.

It's true for small publishers, an enormous amount of our economic value is escaping the firms that are responsible for paying us. So, if we're going to have any hope of having a commercial media environment that is not dominated by these firms, we have to change the commercial math of how journalism is produced for our communities.

You're already facing enough trouble with the Big Tech players. And now on top of it, you have tech players like Google introducing AI measures that could make everything harder for journalists.

It's going to be a much more interventionist future for media. It's going to be one built on a vast amount of data mining. It's going to be powered by GenAI that has accumulated knowledge from all across the internet and is going to be producing outputs that appear in perhaps a single portal so that a user doesn't have to go anywhere.

It [a generative A.I. model] doesn't have to hunt for anything. It never has to see a hyperlink that would take them away from that interface. And I think everything is driving toward that point. And so, when we argue about bills like the California Journalism Preservation Act and people call it a link tax and how it would hurt the open web, I'm looking around here at how I use my devices and how my friends use their devices.

And I'm like, what open web? It’s an information economy that's being rationalized to bring you as many ads as possible to encourage as much economic activity as possible. And that's been positive for a lot of people.

It's been really bad for journalism because at the end of the day despite all this innovation, there is no one else going to the courthouse to dig up those records. There's no one else chasing down an elusive source who doesn't want to talk publicly about what's going on in a major story. There is less and less human judgment in our communities saying, “This is the major story of the day about city hall," and our communities are suffering for that.

And journalists do that work. And I think the nature of what journalism is going to look like is going to change under this incoming internet, the closed internet, the summary internet. And if we're still going to have these people out there doing this essential civic work, somebody's got to pay them.

We're seeing major consequences for big journalistic establishments, like the one you worked at, the LA Times, which has dropped 40% of its staff since 2019. What I don't understand about these GenAI platforms is they're modeled off of previous work. But when there are no more journalists, what happens when there's no more new work?

See, this is the part of the argument where everything that I've said up until now has been rabble-rousing against Google. There is a new bargain to be had. The old bargain of the open web, the old bargain of the hyperlink, was that we would give the internet free — or free-ish — content in exchange for traffic.

And that deal is dying and seems to be a worse deal all the time. But the new deal could be something different, which is that we do have these massive firms that are engaging in these capital-intensive projects to develop these large language models. It takes a lot of energy and it’s a lot of IP [intellectual property].

To me, there's a new value proposition here, which is that Google should pay its fair share for the work of journalism, even if only not out of charity. Not because Google needs to feel good about itself in the world or pretends that it's supporting journalism and pretends that it's doing all of this philanthropically. Google needs quality information to continue grounding its AI models if it's going to have a successful AI development program.

We need human beings who are still going to be performing the dirty work of bringing new information to the world.