Should Google and Facebook be forced to pay for content?

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In a recent column for the New York Times, media writer Ben Smith wrote about how regulators in Australia and France are moving to force digital platforms like Google and Facebook to pay media companies directly for the content they carry from publishers, in the wake of new copyright rules set by the European Union last year. A number of other countries have also tried to do this, with varying degrees of success — Germany passed a law in 2013, but has had difficulty enforcing it, while Spain passed a similar law in 2014, at which point Google responded by shutting down its Google News service completely in that country. The rationale for these kinds of moves against the digital platforms, as Smith laid out in his column, is relatively simple: Google and Facebook took control of the advertising industry, and thereby destroyed the media’s ability to earn a living, which in turn has led to a decline in journalism.

But is this true? Or did Google and Facebook just take advantage of the the internet to offer a better product, something media companies could also have done? Why should they be forced to support companies that were in decline long before the internet? To discuss these and other questions, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to hold a virtual discussion with a group of experts including Ben Smith of the Times; Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY; Monica Attard, the head of journalism at the University of Technology School in Sydney, Australia; Ben Thompson, a technology and media analyst who writes a subscription newsletter called Stratechery; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who runs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Jarvis, a longtime defender of Google and Facebook and author of a book entitled “What Would Google Do?”, argued that the digital platforms are a huge benefit to publishers, because they send them traffic (he also noted that Facebook has donated money to support his work at CUNY). “God did not give newspaper publishers the revenue they had. It is not their eternal entitlement,” Jarvis said. “In the new reality of the internet, new competitors came to offer news companies’ customers — advertisers — a better deal, while publishers insisted on clinging to their old, mass-media business model with all its inefficiencies.” Smith, however, countered that Google and Facebook benefited from laws that helped them grow. “Copyright has been interpreted not to include headlines. Platforms don’t have liability for what is published on them,” he said. “Those aren’t natural laws, they’re just regulations written by legislators.”

Nielsen said that while there’s a case to be made that journalism needs support, the Australian and French proposals “are very unlikely to generate anything like what journalists and publishers might imagine they will,” because they amount to a tax, and such tax schemes “tend to be distorting, inefficient, complex, and vulnerable to swings in the economy” (the Reuters Institute has also received significant amounts of funding from both Google and Facebook). Attard was also skeptical that these new models would provide much benefit even if they are implemented. And Thompson reiterated some of the points he made in his newsletter on the topic, including the argument that the value Facebook and Google provide to the media in return for their content “is objectively measurable: when their content is linked to by Google or Facebook, the media entities make more money, and when it is not, they do not. That is why France had to include a provision forcing Google to not simply exit the market.”

Bell, however, argued that both these perspectives to some extent miss the larger point. “We shouldn’t seek to reform a system purely on a punitive basis,” she said, “but on the basis of what do we want societies to look like, how equal do we want them to be, how do we want democracy to work, and how do we create institutions that support those aims? Instead we have a festival of self-interest.” Bell said she is concerned the culture war between tech and media “is making it impossible to have a sensible policy conversation elsewhere. Both sides have problems, but the urgent need is for ground-level reporting and public accountability.” All the interviews are here.

Here’s more on the platforms and journalism:

Let’s make a deal: Despite its past hostility to the idea, a report in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year suggested that Google was in talks with publishers in Europe about potentially paying them a licensing fee for content that would be included in a news product, although the paper said the talks could still fall apart. Last year, as the EU was considering its new copyright rules, Google said it might have to pull Google News out of Europe completely if the new laws went ahead.

Here’s your check: Ever since it first started being criticized by media companies for taking their content, Google has been trying to repair the relationship by funding journalistic projects and giving money to media partners. It rolled its early efforts in this direction into the Google News Initiative, which the company says is worth $300 million. Facebook launched its own similar $300 million funding program last year, and recently topped that up with another $100 million commitment for funds to help media entities struggling in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdown.

Like Big Pharma: In a group roundtable at the end of the interview series, Bell said that the funding Google and Facebook provide to media companies is a blatant attempt to curry favor with the industry and with regulators. Google’s funding for journalism “clearly seeks to gain it a seat at the policymaking table, she said, “whilst at the same time attempting to ward off more serious elements of regulation. Facebook too.” The relationship is like that between the pharmaceutical industry and the drug industries, Bell argues, which captures research and muffles dissent and is “administered in ways that are often opaque and largely unaccountable.”

Other notable stories:

In a research paper released on Monday (which has not yet been peer reviewed), academics from Columbia University and the University of Chicago — in collaboration with SafeGraph, a geospatial data company — looked at the impact of cable news in the US on regional differences in social distancing efforts during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study found that a one percent increase in Fox News viewership in a zip code reduced the propensity to stay at home by almost nine percent.

The New York Times gave readers a “behind the scenes” look at how the newspaper came up with its unusual Sunday front page: No photos or other graphics, just a long list of names and brief descriptions of some of the 100,000 people who have died of COVID-19. Dots or stick figures “doesn’t really tell you very much about who these people were, the lives that they lived, what it means for us as a country,” said assistant graphics editor Simone Landon. So she came up with the idea of compiling obituaries and death notices of victims from newspapers across the country.

President Trump is considering establishing a panel to review complaints of anti-conservative bias on social media, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The plans are still under discussion but could include the establishment of a White House-created commission that would examine allegations of online bias and censorship, according to people familiar with the matter. The administration could also encourage similar reviews by federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Election Commission.

According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, forty-four percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements, a widely debunked conspiracy theory. The survey, which was conducted May 20 and 21, found that only twenty-six percent of Republicans correctly identify the story as false. In contrast, just nineteen percent of Democrats believe the same story about Gates, and a majority of Democrats recognize that it’s not true.

Donald Trump used his Twitter account over the weekend to breathe life into yet another conspiracy theory: in this case, the completely baseless accusation that Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host and former congressman, had something to do with the death of a young female staffer who worked in his campaign office in 2001. Trump referred to Scarborough as “a Nut Job (with bad ratings)” and asked his followers to “Keep digging, use forensic geniuses!” In a tweet earlier last week, Trump mused: “Did he get away with murder? Some people think so.”

Stuff, which runs the largest media website in New Zealand and prints many of the nation’s daily newspapers, has been sold to the company’s chief executive for one dollar. Sinead Boucher, a former journalist and editor with Stuff, announced on Monday that she has acquired the business from the site’s Australian parent company, Nine Entertainment. Stuff employs about 900 staff, including 400 journalists, all of whom agreed to a fifteen percent pay cut in April during a national shutdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Boucher said she took a forty percent reduction in her pay.

New York Times media writer Ben Smith argued in his column on Sunday that services such as Cameo — which allows users to hire former celebrities to send personal messages to their friends and family for a fee — and the newsletter platform Substack are the future of media. Cameo, he says, is “a new model media company, sitting at the intersection of a set of powerful trends that are accelerating in the present crisis,” including the rise of simple, digital payments, the growing power of individual talent, and the ability to make a living from “1,000 true fans.”

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