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GDPR and U.S. News

How U.S. newspapers are responding (or not) to the new European privacy regulations.

May 29, 2018
 
 

I noticed some chatter about how news sites are addressing – or not addressing – the new European Union privacy regulations that just went into effect, aka the GDPR. In particular, I was surprised to hear that if you are in Europe you can’t read the L.A. Times. The message served up is blunt:

Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.

We’ve known about the GDPR for a long time, so “currently unavailable” sounds like “L.A. Times to Europe: drop dead.”

Huh.

So, I fired up my VPN, set my location to a location governed by the GDPR, and tested 25 US newspapers. The results were . . . well, kind of puzzling.

The papers owned by Tronc, the ridiculous new-fangled name of the Tribune Corporation, all serve the same notice as the L.A. Times. This confused me not because Tronc is incompetent (it is) but because Tronc no longer owns the L.A. Times or the San Diego Union-Tribune, which were bought last February by a local billionaire, though the deal didn’t close until last month. Maybe it’s still disentangling its affairs from its previous owners? If I wrote for the L.A. Times I'd be disappointed.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal load without a whimper. In fact, the WSJ delivers me a European edition. Chouette! Both have far fewer ads loading for European IPs than in the US, so they apparently are in compliance in Europe, but at home we get all the ads. (Thank you, Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin, for running the numbers.)

USA Today and the Arizona Republic, both owned by Gannett, do the same and make it into a virtue.

Welcome to USA TODAY NETWORK’S EUROPEAN UNION EXPERIENCE - This site does not collect personally identifiable information or persistent identifiers from, deliver a personalized experience to, or otherwise track or monitor persons reasonably identified as visiting our Site from the European Union. We do identify EU internet protocol (IP) addresses for the purpose of determining whether to direct you to USA TODAY NETWORK’s EU Experience.

That’s nice, rolling out the blue star-spangled carpet. Somebody on this side of the pond noticed it loads a whole lot faster without all those ads and beacons, though, so there may be more VPNs used in the US to enjoy the EUROPEAN UNION EXPERIENCE.

The Washington Post gives European folks a subscription page instead of the front page US folks get. Europeans can read a limited number of articles for free, but beyond that they must pay, and subscription rates have gone up to make up for the loss of ad revenue.  

As for the rest of the papers I checked – the majority - they appear to serve the same number of ads to Europeans as to us. Looks as if they just decided to blow the new regulations off.

Huh.

Poynter has a report on how news organizations are approaching GDPR and invites papers to tell them what they’re doing. So far, no takers.

Here’s what worries me. I think journalism is important. It has to be paid for. It’s getting squeezed by some owners who don’t care about news, only about profits (Alden Global Capital, for example, owns 50 papers. It’s a hedge fund specializing in buying and harvesting capital from “distressed properties.” That’s why the Mercury News, northern California’s last remaining major paper, is falling apart and my local Saint Paul Pioneer Press is circling the drain.) It’s getting squeezed by the ways digital advertising works. It’s far less profitable than print ads were, and Google and Facebook get a lion’s share. People find digital ads annoying so increasingly they block them. Eventually we’re going to have to find a better way to pay for news.

There are some weird global glitches, too. You can’t get a Googlized digest of news in Spain because news organizations objected to Google taking their business. Fair enough. You can, of course, Google El Pais (“el periodico global”) but there are probably smaller organizations you won’t easily find if you don’t know they exist. As papers abroad begin throwing up paywalls, we’re getting requests in my library to subscribe to things that were once expensive and slow to arrive on paper but then were suddenly instant and free. I’m not sure how we’ll handle this, since faculty want access to sites which don’t (yet) offer anything but personal subscriptions without institutional authentication. Just as we need more global perspectives, we’re relying on individual subscriptions, and only a few of the largest news organizations will have a sizable subscriber base that can pay the bills.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but paywalls have limits. Public interest journalism funded by grants and donors won’t cover the cost for all the news and could skew what stories get coverage. Somehow we need to find a way to make ads pay for journalism without relying on the current system of third parties auctioning ads behind the scenes for rates that don’t provide enough revenue while also taking too much of our personal information.

Does anyone know of a way forward?

 

 

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