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Modi should follow Morrison, demand Facebook and Google share revenues with news publishers

Social media companies are taking away most digital advertising revenues by leeching on content created by news organisations. The model is broken.

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In almost every country across the world, news media has been facing the challenge of dwindling revenues. This has a direct impact on the quality and quantity of journalism, because there’s simply not enough money to hire good journalists, to spend on news gathering, and to report on everything that needs to be reported. Across the world, newspapers and magazines that thrived in hard copy have been forced to shut down, reduce their number of pages, go online, and wither away.

The problem is not the internet. As the attention of readers moved to digital screens, so did advertising. After all, ad revenues haven’t been rising as fast as they should in newspapers because digital ad spends have been rising exponentially. What was a slow process has been hastened by the Covid-19 paranoia about newspapers spreading the virus.

There’s enough and more digital advertising to fund all the journalism that all of us collectively can dream of. The problem is that most of this advertising money goes to two companies: Facebook and Google. What news websites or any kind of content websites earn is a pittance.

When a news headline with a photo, and even an excerpt, comes up on Google or Facebook feed, users get the relevant information even without clicking on the page. So Facebook and Google (and their various allied platforms such as Instagram and YouTube) have replaced the newspaper. People log on to these social media sites partly to know what’s happening in the world.

Click-bait headlines that people complain about exist because of this very reason. With people hooked to social media platforms, advertisers spend money on these platforms. These platforms have incredible amounts of data on what you’re interested in, and sell those data to advertising companies because they don’t respect privacy. If you read an article about electric vehicles, they know you are interested in electric vehicles and will serve you an electric vehicle ad. Naturally, advertisers find such micro-targeting to be more cost-effective than any other kind of advertising.

That’s why even when websites get clicks, they don’t earn the kind of revenue such a large readership would have got in newspaper form. And the readership is huge: even a small news website is read by millions of people these days.

Also read: How Google’s deals with Murdoch’s News Corp, other media could change how world accesses news

Not all disruption is good

Technological disruption is how the world has progressed. It killed radio for TV, and moved the world from sending telegrams to video calling. The problem is not that the internet could kill newspapers. The problem is that the internet is killing journalism.

This calls for regulatory intervention. Journalism is a public good, the fourth pillar of democracy. A weak news media means fake news will rule the roost. A news media with little financial muscle means strong governments can threaten and subjugate it at the cost of truth-telling. Weak journalism is a sign of a weak democracy.

The ways of Facebook and Google need to be reined in. Europe has been trying to figure this out but the country down under, Australia, has called the bluff of these tech platforms in a daring act.

Also read: The ‘foreign hand’ in journalism and how Australia is at the front lines

Australia shows the way

Australia has proposed — not yet passed — a new law that would force tech giants to pay for news content. To make this happen, the law would enable news organisations to negotiate as a bloc with the tech companies. Google has agreed to explore the idea in some form, but Facebook has taken the opposite approach, removing news articles from its platform in Australia. Furthermore, you can’t share a news article directly from any Australian website on Facebook.

This has created an exciting situation where there’s some content that can’t be shared on content-hungry Facebook. This could be a blessing in disguise for news publishers in Australia. If news goes off Facebook and Google, people will have to find other ways to access the content, such as visiting the news websites directly, or subscribing to their email newsletters. This can return the direct advertiser attention to news websites. Why do we need Facebook or Google as middlemen?

What Australia is doing isn’t some experiment the rest of us should sit back and just watch. This is now a global movement, and India must join in. Journalism has to be saved. Currently, if you are a journalist, or just about any kind of content creator, you are mostly working for Facebook or Google for free. If they are generous enough to offer you monetisation and share the revenue, what you earn still amounts to only a pittance. The distribution platforms are getting richer, and journalism is getting poorer.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his support for the Australian media platform bill. This is support that must be given heartily. India must join and strengthen this global movement to save journalism.

News Corp chief Robert Thomson said recently: “New terms of trade will be introduced” in Australia “but that debate now extends across the globe. There is not a single serious digital regulator anywhere in the world who is not examining the opacity of algorithms, the integrity of personal data, the social value of professional journalism, and the dysfunctional digital ad market…”. India must lose no time in joining this debate.

The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.

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  1. Why don’t media houses pay for using platform? You are not only using the platforms for free, but want a share of revenue as well. I don’t understand the logic. If I have to publish an ad in newspapers or your website, I have to pay. Even after paying media houses don’t share their ad revenue with me. In your case you get to publish your article for free.
    Did facebook and Google force you to use their platform? No. You did it on your own. So why you want a share of ad revenue? Why don’t you build your own platform. You are using others platform without spending a dime. It just doesn’t make sense. And if media houses plan to arm twist the tech companies by supporting such legislation of government, then you too are government lap d0g. Just look at the greediness of media houses. Not a single media houses has said anything in support of tech companies. Why? Because it is beneficial for them. So now I hope you will stop calling others government lap d0g since you just now become one.

  2. This is dumb. Facebook hasn’t asked for links. I like this website, but sorry just because you chose a dying profession that’s being distintermediated by silicon valley don’t expect handouts. Free links is one of the guiding principles of the internet and what make it great, just because I, a user put a link – FB has to pay Murdoch? Give me a break and see the irony of a publication like this leeching on Murdoch – I guess money talks at the end of the day. I don’t like FB, I like you’ll guys more – more the way the media internationally and now here is portraying this issue is disgusting to say the least.

  3. I agree. Nothing should be given free to anybody anywhere.

    Even freedom should not be given free.

  4. Let me explain my point by assuming two scenarios:

    Scenario 1: let us assume that from tomorrow morning there is no news websites content available on social media and google then here is what I believe will happen.

    A) yes definitely people will get there news from new agencies website and will subscribe for there newsletters but I believe a normal person can’t remember more than 5 to 6 websites web address which will make discovering new upcoming new sites harder because if you or your friends discovered a amazing news articles but they can’t share with others because news sites are not available on social media.

    B) A layman will not get views from right, left and neutral perspective (belive or not media is polarized either be right now or in past) because it will be harder for him to get different perspective as he will only get views only from websites he/she can remember

    Scenario 2: let us assume that from tomorrow morning there is no news websites content available on social media and google and for that content to be available they have to strike deals with media houses individually then here is what I believe will happen.

    A)only a select few deals will be signed and mostly with more renowned pre-established news outlets because from the perspective of companies such as Google all the news is same either it is from some big media house or small media company, they will definitely sign a deal first and foremost with a media company which has more readers because for them numbers matter more than anything.

    B) let us assume ThePrint or Scroll or TheQuint are starting after this all then how will they make normal users come to their website because in this scenario they have to strike a deal first but realistically speaking the deal will not go through (without right connections) because for them to sign a deal the new media house have next to no value to offer.

    C). There is I more thing which might happen that is the media houses will try to low ball each other to strike a deal.

    Then what will be a solution to all this. Here is what I believe will more useful than this law.
    A). Pushing google and similar sites to increase adsense percentage share for publishers

    B).Making these companies to pay for the data they are collecting from news media companies and their reader’s.

    C). Making Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to pay news media companies and other professionals pages as how YouTube pays it’s content creates.

    p.s: I believe I might be wrong because by no means I am a expert in these topic, if some experts are reading this then please contribute to this constructive conversation and one thing please excuse me if you find any grammatical error, I am working on it.

  5. The author states “Journalism has to be saved.”.
    In the Indian context does he actually mean “leftist anti-BJP, anti-Hindu, anti-India journalism has to be saved.”?

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