Two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, issued statements today condemning the corporate interests that have increasingly been destroying media institutions.
“Private equity firms are sucking value out of our companies, putting people out of work, and wiping out newspapers and digital news outlets,” Elizabeth Warren tweeted. She said that she had a plan to hold the firms accountable:
Shortly thereafter, Bernie Sanders tweeted, “We cannot allow corporate America to continue to destroy journalism,” calling out the owners of Sports Illustrated, McClatchy, and Gannett, among others.
One of the companies, Sports Illustrated, is now being operated by a tech platform called TheMaven which last week laid off more than 40 SI staffers so that they could be replaced by an army of independent contractors. Deadspin’s reporting on TheMaven revealed that a core part of their business plan is leveraging the value of Sports Illustrated’s prestigious brand name while simultaneously cheapening the cost and diluting the quality of work that the publication actually produces.
TheMaven’s playbook is a familiar one for anyone who has been paying attention to digital media over the last few years, as Sanders and Warren apparently have. Warren’s plan is most directly concerned with regulating the private equity firms that have been buying and strip-mining newspapers and other publications throughout the country. From Vox:
Warren’s idea is fairly straightforward, and a smaller piece of a larger “economic patriotism” plan. Specifically, Warren wants to regulate private equity firms and investment companies that make money by buying companies including local newspapers, cutting costs by shedding staff and resources, and selling the shell of that company for a profit.
As Vox’s Emily Stewart explained, “The bill would overhaul the way private equity is governed and require the industry to change some of its most lucrative business practices. It would also offer more protections for workers when their private equity-owned employers go south. ... It would mean that to make a lot of money, they’d have to make really good bets.” (It’s worth noting Sanders supports this; he also cosponsored Warren’s bill in the Senate).
Sanders’s plan is more comprehensive, and diagnoses what’s happening at places like Sports Illustrated as a problem that goes far beyond private equity firms cashing in on distressed assets. In a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed published in August, Sanders outlined a plan to revitalize journalism and digital media that included cracking down on mergers and tech companies which have gobbled up digital ad revenue while publications are left out in the cold:
Finally, when it comes to Silicon Valley, I will appoint an Attorney General as well as Federal Trade Commission officials who more stringently enforce antitrust laws against tech giants like Facebook and Google, to prevent them from using their enormous market power to cannibalize, bilk, and defund news organizations. Their monopoly power has particularly harmed small, independent news outlets that do not have the corporate infrastructure to fight back.
We must also explore new ways to empower media organizations to collectively bargain with these tech monopolies, and we should consider taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. That will be part of an overall effort to substantially increase funding for programs that support public media’s news-gathering operations at the local level—in much the same way many other countries already fund independent public media.
In September, before layoffs at SI and other websites hit, Business Insider reported that in the past year more than 7,200 journalists have lost their jobs. The problems plaguing the media industry are systemic, and one way to solve them is by supporting legislation that makes it harder for executives in charge of media companies to strip them for parts, rely on underpaid labor, and bust media unions, all while they enrich themselves. If print and digital media, and by extension sports media, are going to survive, the sort of regulations outlined by Sanders and Warren are a good place to start.