WASHINGTON — In April 2018, Colorado’s largest newspaper took on the leaders of a prominent Manhattan hedge fund, labeling them “vulture capitalists” in a scathing editorial.

Though journalists are no strangers to challenging influential figures, this was a rare move: They were taking on their owners.

The hedge fund had gutted the profitable and award-winning Denver Post newsroom, the editorial said, undermining its role as a watchdog for the community.

Accompanying the editorial was a photo of the staff five years prior that had been edited to show the effect of layoffs. Those who had since left were covered in black, leaving a sea of darkness between the sparse remaining employees and putting the newsroom’s decline in stark relief.

But the problem is not unique to Denver or even to the hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, which now owns hundreds of newspapers around the country.

The photo represented what newsrooms across North America have been wrangling with for years as revenue streams from advertising and classifieds dried up amid the rise of the internet. The situation in local newsrooms, especially print ones, is particularly bleak.

In the two years alone after the editorial was published, 300 newspapers across America shut their doors, according to a 2020 report by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, bringing the total to nearly 2,100 since 2004. The result has been an increasing number of so-called news deserts — geographic areas where local news has entirely or almost vanished.

Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington has developed a proposal to try to help news organizations win back some of their lost advertising dollars from digital behemoths such as Facebook and Google. The bill would provide news organizations “a temporary safe harbor” from antitrust laws for four years to allow them to negotiate collectively with the major online platforms for compensation for their reporting.

The legislation, known as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021, has support from multiple major news organizations, including USA Today, the Tampa Bay Times, and the Washington Examiner. But some experts say the measure is either too late or won’t work as intended. “This would have been a great solution about 20 years ago,” said Joel Caplan, a journalism professor at Syracuse University and former newspaper reporter.

Still, the legislation illustrates the growing debate and concern among elected officials of all stripes about newsroom cuts and closures and their effect on the country more broadly.

“A strong, diverse, free press is critical for any successful democracy,” Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, one of the bill’s sponsors in the House, said in a statement after introducing it in March. “Access to trustworthy local journalism helps inform the public, hold powerful people accountable, and root out corruption. This bill will give hardworking local reporters and publishers the helping hand they need right now, so they can continue to do their important work.”

Republican Rep. Ken Buck, also a sponsor of the bill, expressed similar concerns. “One of the bedrock values of our country is a free press, but we have seen thousands of news organizations crushed by the monopolistic power of Big Tech,” Buck said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill is an important start to remedying the results of Google, Facebook, and others anticompetitive conduct toward local news outlets, conservative media, and other news organizations.”

It’s unclear if the bill, identical versions of which were introduced in the House and Senate, will pass anytime soon, as it has not advanced in either chamber since it was introduced. But in a statement to the Washington Examiner, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a sponsor in the Senate, said that “there is a newfound, bipartisan momentum behind Congressional efforts to rein in big tech and improve competition policy” and lawmakers “are working to take action on many fronts.”

Representatives for Buck and Cicilline did not respond to questions about whether they’ve made any progress on the bill since March.

One of the proposal’s most prominent supporters has been the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing around 2,000 media organizations in North America. The group has been pushing for the legislation since 2018 when a similar bill was first introduced.

Earlier this year, the group launched a petition on Change.org titled “Save Local News” that has since garnered nearly 24,000 signatures. It’s also spent more than $1.2 million lobbying Congress so far this year, according to lobbying disclosures, and the safe harbor legislation has been a topic of discussion throughout 2021.

In May, the News Media Alliance said it was holding virtual meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to advocate for its passage as well. “Currently, the Duopoly is capturing 90% of all digital ad revenue growth and approximately 60% of total U.S. digital advertising,” the group said in a statement at the time. “Like the bills’ co-sponsors, the Alliance believes the solution to this problem is to provide a safe harbor for news publishers to allow them to come together to negotiate with the platforms on their overall behalf.”

But not everyone is convinced of the measure’s merits. “I just think it might be too late,” said Caplan, the professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Caplan, who worked as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, said newspapers were “the future” in the late 1990s. “Look at the Chicago Tribune stock in those days. It was over, like, $100 a share,” he said. “The reason why was because the future was the internet, and newspapers basically controlled content on the internet.”

But print publications were not willing to look forward, leaving the digital platforms to fill the void, he said. “If newspapers had done with paywalls and other things right off the bat, they could have dominated the industry,” he said. “It's so late now that they're left trying to beg Congress to pass legislation that would allow them to kind of gang up together and negotiate deals with Facebook, Google, etc.”

“It's better late than never,” he said. “I'm not sure it will work.”

David Skok, the founder of the Logic, a digital publication in Canada, said news organizations are already inking deals with the major platforms as political pressure and the threat of regulation has mounted against them. For Skok, who has led digital overhauls of major newspapers such as the Boston Globe and Toronto Star, the biggest question is how to allow for innovation in the media landscape without further eliminating more traditional publications.

“The current makeup of do nothing, of do no harm and leaving it alone, is actually creating the worst of both worlds,” said Skok, who also serves on the advisory board for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. “It's forcing tech platforms, who are feeling pressure to do these deals, to make deals with the big publishers, which is, in turn, allowing those big publishers to compete on an uneven playing field with the small innovative companies trying to survive.”

Skok said those deals are also “essentially a black box” and that scant details are known about their value. “Collective bargaining seems like the right approach because it allows the media publishers to have transparency and visibility on who's getting what and how they can negotiate fairly with these platforms — the challenge being that you're always going to leave some out,” Skok said. “And in trying to quantify or classify who gets in and who gets out, you're now defining what is journalism and what isn't and what is warranted of getting the support and what isn't.”

Skok’s concerns are echoed by Public Knowledge, an advocacy group focused on internet and copyright law. “News giants with the greatest leverage would dominate the negotiations, and small outlets would be unheard if not hurt,” Lisa Macpherson, a senior policy fellow at Public Knowledge, wrote in a June blog post about the bill.

Macpherson also raised concerns about how the language of the bill might affect copyright law as it relates to linking to websites on the internet more broadly because the legislation appears premised on the notion that news organizations could withhold content from the platforms as leverage in negotiations.

Google shares similar concerns. “The internet was built on the ability to link freely between websites, which allows people to easily browse the internet,” Google said on a website it launched a day after lawmakers introduced the bill. “Changing this would fundamentally break the way the open web works and how people use Google Search. This is why we and many others are concerned by some proposals that would require news publishers to be paid just for showing links to their sites from a Google search results page.”

Google also used the website to tout the deals it has already struck with media outlets. “Through both our services and our direct funding of news organizations, Google is one of the world’s biggest financial supporters of journalism,” it said on the site.

Technology trade groups to which both Facebook and Google belong also oppose the legislation. “Objective news coverage is a public good, but we don’t think the way to fund that public good is by constructing a cartel,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told Reuters in March.

Facebook, which has spent more than $14 million on lobbying Congress this year, has listed the safe harbor bill among its agenda items in public disclosures throughout the year.

Though the lobbying disclosures don’t state Facebook’s exact position on the legislation, the social media giant was not shy about hiding its disdain for a similar bill before Australia's Parliament. In February, Facebook took the aggressive move of banning news links for all of its Australian users, as well as banning links to Australian news sources worldwide to object to the legislation.

After receiving what it said were sufficient concessions from the government, Facebook lifted the ban. But even with those concessions, the threat of the legislation as well as its passage prompted several deals between Google, Facebook, and Australian news organizations.

The Australian law is a “perfect parallel” to the U.S. proposal, said Mike Stanton, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s journalism department who supports the bill. “I don't think anybody's the worse for the wear,” Stanton said of the Australian saga.

Stanton, a former investigative reporter at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, said hedge funds that own newspapers “should have their feet held to the fire” if the bill becomes law to ensure that any revenue gained isn’t used solely to “enhance profits and dividends.”

Still, Stanton said the platforms should pay for journalism. “They pay for licensed music, why not news content?” he said.

“Certainly, you know, Taylor Swift isn't going to be pushed around like that,” Stanton said. “And that's why they can't use her music without licensing it, and local news organizations need to band together so that they can have the same muscle.”