Facebook has saved face, but now it’s also helping to save journalism
News media had given away content online for free because it saw no alternative; it ignored the long, slow drift away of readers as content wasn’t compelling enough. Until the fake news fad arrived, it fundamentally did not understand the role its professional content could exploit in the social media mix to bring trust and fact.
Google and Facebook can’t be blamed for media’s many missteps. The companies’ unrelenting rise, however, would popularise the digital revolution. They created their wealth by changing how we communicate, shop, share, socialise, do business and consume news. They created a class of their own.
News media executives awoke to find they couldn’t afford to give away content online for free. However, until now payment negotiations with the new landlords got nowhere. Ad revenue negotiations even more so. Platforms had shrunk stories to snippets, bypassed publisher homepages, withheld reader information, and algorithms relegated subscription journalism and original reporting down the search ranks.
Rod Sims, as chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, came up with a media bargaining code after a two-year inquiry to redress the imbalance in commercial power so journalism had a chance to survive. Media companies need Google and Facebook more than the platforms need the media, yet these unavoidable business partnerships were floundering as journalism kept shrinking.
The code’s threatened use of forced arbitration, vigorously objected to by the two platforms, is included to redress the power that is blocking new digital models to support journalism. The code is not designed to pay back long-lost advertising to media companies. Nor is it designed to pay for content, as such. The platforms agree to the principle of payment. It’s about how much and to whom.
The code’s bargaining benefits for journalism are already clear. Google’s News Showcase product, recently launched it in the United Kingdom, is the first example. It pays fees to the media companies for their stories which appear on it. But those are less than half those Google has agreed to pay in France, where tough new European Union copyright laws have passed. In Australia, the deployment of Sims’ competition law tricks has already elicited total payments by Google to publishers five times more than those in France.
Google worked out early enough that if it could do commercial deals with all media companies in Australia to the satisfaction of the government it wouldn’t be subject to the code’s tough penalties. Facebook only worked that out after it had made good on its threat to shut down all news in Australia.
Facebook won no major concession during its blackout. Instead, it was left to announce it had achieved wording changes on some technical issues with the bill. Google, meanwhile, had retained control of its deal structures and tailored them to each media company. Some publishers get story payments, some get cost rebates, for example. Importantly, the giant has avoided paying for clicks on links on its platform. It was worried that paying for links on its search engine would have sent it broke when every industry on the planet asked for it. And it would have attacked the core notion of a free and open internet.
And finally, let’s be clear: it’s not about Rupert Murdoch. He is just one of six publishers globally who have been willing to speak publicly about this universal issue. To underscore the code’s broad intent, the ACCC has made it a priority of supporting all media companies, big and small. The code includes a poison pill to ensure that a platform cannot discriminate against any news publisher by leaving it out of a commercial contract. If it doesn’t strike a deal with every media business, it would have to remove all local and overseas news from its platform as punishment. Bargaining collectively is also authorised.
Google has stayed ahead of the game throughout and in the long sweep of media history it will be seen to have helped deliver the code for the government while Facebook tripped up.
Free press has notched up a win, too, and this didn’t have to be at the expense of the free and open web as had been feared. The code’s details may be imperfect in parts but at its core it has just shown that it works.
In a country that normally doesn’t matter much in geopolitics, the Australian government’s move to shore up funding for journalism matters a great deal – and how Australia has gone about it even more so.
Robert Whitehead is a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and leads research into data regulation for the International News Media Association.