Google cuts deals with publishers while Facebook blocks all news in Australia

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Australia has become Ground Zero in the battle over payment for news in recent weeks, thanks to a proposed law that would force platforms like Google and Facebook to pay publishers for the right to use even small portions of their articles. That battle escalated in two different directions at once on Wednesday: on one side, News Corp. announced a multi-year deal with Google that will see the search company pay for content from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Times in the UK and other Murdoch properties. Just hours later, Facebook announced that it has taken the exact opposite approach: because of the proposed law, the company says it will block publishers in Australia from posting any of their articles to Facebook, and will also block Facebook users in that country from sharing any news on its platform — that is, not just news from Australian publishers, but any news from any outlet worldwide. William Easton, director of operations in Australia for Facebook, wrote that the proposed news-payment code “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”

The proposed Australian code, which is scheduled to go before that country’s Senate later this month for approval, would force Google and Facebook to negotiate with news publishers — either individually or as a group — in order to arrive at fair compensation for the use of even small snippets of their news content. If they can’t reach an agreement, then the Australian code would force the digital platforms to enter into binding arbitration with a government-appointed mediator. In addition to payment, the code also requires the platforms to do other things, including sharing any changes to their news-recommendation algorithms that might affect how a publisher’s content is found. The original version of the code would have forced Google and Facebook to pay a specific amount for every click on a news article, but a revised version released this week says that the platforms can negotiate payment based on lump sums for any and all content.

The Australian code is a tougher version of similar copyright-based laws that have been enacted over the past few years in a number of European countries, including France and Germany, which require Google and other digital platforms to pay for using even small sections of news articles. Those laws were sparked by changes to European Union copyright laws to enable what are called “neighboring rights,” and the EU is said to be watching Australia’s proposed law with a view towards possibly toughening its own legislation in similar ways. While Google has threatened in the past to withdraw its search and news services from the EU, as well as from France and Germany, the company has not followed through on these threats (with one exception: it removed Spain from its Google News index in 2014 after similar laws were passed in that country). Instead, it has been signing deals with publishers in France and elsewhere, paying them for inclusion in its Google News Showcase, which was launched last year.

Google’s strategy seems to be to cut checks for publishers wherever it can, in the hope that it can do an end run around laws that tell it what to pay to whom, and include the threat of arbitration and/or large fines. In addition to signing a deal with News Corp., Google has signed similar deals with Seven and Nine in Australia, two large broadcast networks, committing to pay them $30 million each for the right to use their content in the News Showcase. Facebook has not only taken the complete opposite tack, but has chosen what some call the “nuclear option,” removing any and all news from Australia completely. In its blog post about the decision, the company said its approach diverged from Google’s because the two platforms have fundamentally different relationships to the news. A search engine, it says, “is inextricably intertwined with news, and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content” (which isn’t strictly accurate — publishers can easily block Google from taking their content if they wish), while publishers “willingly choose to post on Facebook because it allows them to increase their audiences and revenue.” 

The move may make life difficult for some Australian news publishers, especially smaller ones that rely on distribution through the social network, something the company is no doubt hoping will put pressure on the government to amend the code. But blocking publishers and even users from posting news articles is unlikely to impose much pain on Facebook itself, even over the longer term — the company said that news makes up less than 5 percent of the main News Feed globally. Australia’s communications minister said Facebook’s move raises questions about the company’s commitment to high-quality information. “The decision they’re taking is to remove all authoritative news sources from the platform,” he said. “Obviously the Australian government will consider that very carefully but it certainly raises issues about the credibility of information on the platform.” Some argue that it could even backfire if it makes regulators pay even closer attention to Facebook’s market dominance.

Here’s more on platforms and news:

Deeply problematic: Owen Williams writes in a piece for OneZero that while Google and Facebook have caused harm to the advertising industry that supports traditional media, the Australian code is the wrong response. “There is merit in forcing powerful platforms like Google and Facebook to the negotiating table over their treatment of the media,” he says “But forcing any platform that generates more than $150,000 in annual revenue and hosts links to a piece of news to pay up, as this proposal would, is deeply problematic.”

Be honest: Technology analyst Benedict Evans says one could argue news media has social value and should therefore get public funding, and even that large corporations like Google and Facebook should subsidize it, but if so then it should be a straightforward tax. If that’s what people want, he said in a discussion on CJR’s Galley platform Wednesday, then they “should be honest, and argue for that. Instead, we have an attempt to make this a competition and IP question, which really isn’t true at all. Google and Facebook do not use or publish journalism — they give links to news like any other website.”

Terrible precedent: “I hate this,” Jeff Jarvis, a CUNY journalism professor and a strong critic of Australia’s proposed law, said about Google’s deal with News Corp. “It means that media blackmail works. It sets a terrible precedent for the net. It gives Google yet more power over news. It is a win for the devil, Murdoch.” In a discussion on CJR’s Galley platform on Wednesday, Jarvis added that what angers him the most is that journalism organizations in Australia openly campaigned for the payment law, “cashing in their political capital to buy political favor and a conspiracy to blackmail the tech companies.” The media in Australia has many ties to the government there.

Hidden benefit: Digital media veteran Tom Coates said he thinks the Facebook blockade of news in Australia might turn out to be a good thing for news publishers. “The only conclusion will be that it forces some people back to the news sites where they can monetize much more effectively,” he said on Twitter. “If they can keep their nerve it might actually help their industry.” Many people responded to the news by joking that they wished Facebook would implement a similar restriction on news in their countries. But some non-media organizations complained that they were being caught by Facebook’s ban as well, and others noted that the national weather service and even some charities seemed to be blocked.

Other notable stories:

Rush Limbaugh, the talk-radio host who arguably defined an era in right-wing political commentary in the United States, has died at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer. HuffPost said that he “saturated America’s airwaves with cruel bigotries, lies and conspiracy theories for over three decades.” Matt Gertz at Media Matters said that Limbaugh’s bigotry “set the stage for Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.” Media studies professor Jeffrey Jones said that he “revived overt and dog-whistle racism” and showed Fox News founder Roger Ailes the formula for right-wing broadcast success by recasting ignorance as “common sense.” David Folkenflik at NPR said that he he “embodied a counterpunch to what many on the right contended was a liberal media establishment — even as he offended millions with his racist, sexist and homophobic routines and diatribes.” The Daily Beast called him a “human megaphone who hijacked the GOP.”

In the wake of hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Publishing, media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post about the “audacious lie” the fund has told about its commitment to “ensuring the sustainability of robust local journalism.” Those who know anything about local journalism in the US are in general agreement, Sullivan says: “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved.”

Two months after The Hartford Courant closed its newsroom, a legislative committee brought forward a bill Tuesday that would examine the newspaper’s ownership, and possibly bar a hedge fund like Alden Global from owning it. Unlike the overwhelming majority of companies in Connecticut, The Hartford Courant Co. operates under a special act of the legislature, dating at least to 1887, and has been amended several times. Senator Matthew Lesser argues that this gives the General Assembly authority to potentially affect the ownership of the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the US.

Richard Tofel is stepping down as president of ProPublica after 14 years at the non-profit media organization, eight of them as president, the company announced on Wednesday. Tofel was the outlet’s first employee in 2007 and has led the business side of the investigative newsroom since its inception. In that time, ProPublica has grown from an initial staff of fewer than 25 people to a projected staff of 175 by mid-2021, with an annual budget that has grown from $10 million to nearly $36 million this year.

David Schechter, a TV journalist based in Texas, writes for CJR about how he dealt with his own ignorance about climate change. “The truth is, I had never explored—for myself—the documentation that establishes, beyond a doubt, the climate is changing. And digging down into bedrock science on a subject so full of noise and passion felt like a task I didn’t have the time or taste for. On the rare occasions when I absolutely had to report about climate, I found myself defaulting to both-sides-ism—saying that ‘climate change is controversial’ and giving both sides equal weight in my story.”

An analysis by NewsGuard and PeakMetrics found that 87 percent of news links shared on the right-wing Twitter alternative Parler in the time period surrounding the January 6 riots at the Capitol in Washington came from misinformation sources, ranging from a North Macedonian site called American Conservatives Today to an Alex Jones video website to QAnon conspiracy sites.

The GroundTruth Project announced today the launch of Report for the World, its newest service program, and issued a call for applications for local journalists to serve communities in Nigeria and India. The organization says Report for the World will match local newsrooms with talented emerging journalists to report on under-covered issues around the globe, beginning with six “corps members” in two partner newsrooms this spring— in India and TheCable in Nigeria. Corps members will become full-time employees of the host newsrooms for at least one year, renewable for a second and third year.

Sara Sheridan of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia talks with Sarah Stonbely, the research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which is publishing a report on the state of local news in New Jersey in co-operation with the Tow Center. “Stonbely and her research team were able to create a more nuanced map of where news is coming from in the state, and where it may be overlooked. They also integrated municipal-level median household income, tax-spending data, and population demographics to better understand who was missing out on local news.”

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