News publications are advertised outside a shop in Sydney, Australia, on September 14, 2017. CPJ spoke with Australia’s journalist union about a new code that would change the way news is shared on online platforms. (APF/Peter Parks)

Australia’s journalist union on Facebook, Google, and who should pay for news

Facebook threatened to prevent Australian users and publishers from posting news on its platform last week, raising questions about who benefits when people share journalism on social media—and who has the power to stop them.

The company was responding to drafts of a news media bargaining code and related legislation published on July 31 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The code would require Facebook and Google to negotiate payment to local news organizations on grounds that digital advertising on the platforms might otherwise sustain the media; other companies may be included later at the government’s discretion, according to the Commission. The regulation follows an investigation by the Commission, and stalled efforts to develop a voluntary code, according to news reports.

When the draft moved to make negotiation mandatory, Facebook said it would remove news entirely rather than comply. Google’s search engine is separately warning Australian users that the new regulation will put their experience “at risk.”

The code would also require platforms to notify publishers 28 days in advance of any changes to algorithms that affect the way news would reach consumers, a measure Facebook’s response noted would give the media an unfair advantage over other businesses; Google said on Twitter that its search algorithm changes five times a day, making the rule impractical.

It’s not clear how Facebook would enforce a news restriction, which it said would apply to local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. A spokesperson, Adam Isserlis,told CPJ that the company is “working on a product solution that covers all relevant ways in which news is shared,” but did not elaborate.

Facebook is the most important social platform for news worldwide, according to a 2019 report by the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute. Its decisions can have massive financial and editorial impacts on news organizations, including closures, according to news reports. Spain, France, and Germany have separately tried to prevent Google from excerpting news without paying the publisher—with readership often suffering as a result, according to Wiredmagazine.

CPJ spoke with Marcus Strom, the president of Australia’s journalist union, Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA), to understand the implications of the law, and Facebook’s response, for journalists. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CPJ put Strom’s arguments to representatives at Facebook and Google. Isserlis, the Facebook spokesperson, said the company had invested “millions” of dollars in the Australian news industry, including a COVID-19 relief fund, and committed $400 million over three years to support journalism and the news industry globally in 2019 and 2020. Google spokesperson Maggie Shiels told CPJ that just over one percent of queries on Google Search in Australia were news-related, and that the company does not run ads those results or on Google News.

The MEAA has called Australia’s proposed law “a great first step,” but also raised concerns. Why do you support the government’s approach?   

The dramatic decline of local, regional and rural media outlets—and the cuts in funding to the national public broadcasters—should ring an alarm bell for all concerned about the future of journalism.

Like elsewhere in the world, the advertising business model that has sustained journalism in Australia has been disrupted by the internet. For nearly two decades Google and Facebook have enjoyed very substantial direct and indirect benefits through the cost-free carriage of Australian news content. This has essentially separated news production from the news distributors, who continue to attract the lion’s share of advertising revenue. This new business model has literally destroyed newsrooms around the world.

Between 2011 and 2019, we estimate that close to 2,800 editorial jobs were lost in Australia through redundancies and closures, and more than 100 regional and community mastheads closed. In 2020 alone, the Australian media is on track to lose at least 1,000 more editorial jobs and well over 150 print and broadcast newsrooms, temporarily or for good.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s 2019 inquiry recognized this, and the corresponding decline in coverage of areas of public interest. The code seeks to restore balance by returning revenues to media outlets for their content, while also promoting and supporting them as they confront the most difficult economic environment they have ever faced.

MEAA welcomes the planned 28 days’ notice for change to the algorithms used by the digital platforms to utilize the news content the media organizations create.

Which media outlets would qualify for payment—and who decides?

MEAA believes the draft code needs more work. Despite digital disruption, Australia remains one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. This fund cannot be a prop to the falling profits of monopolistic giants that fear the future will undermine their monopoly status.

[The code] should also support new and emerging media outlets, who need the most support. Given the escalating decline of Australia’s regional and rural media sector, we believe special consideration should be given to diverting a healthy proportion of funds to maintaining these invaluable local news providers.

Currently, the draft code is not accompanied by any requirement that the funds derived by media organizations will be used for the production of news content—i.e. to invest in the work of staff journalists and freelancers. That must be fixed.

It should be noted that national public broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) which incorporates National Indigenous Television, are excluded from receiving remuneration for their content. MEAA believes this is short-sighted.

Are you concerned about the Australian government picking and choosing what counts as news?

The code’s coverage of content may need refinement. MEAA believes that ring-fencing content to be covered by the code is likely to trigger disputation about what is and is not covered.

The draft Code states that a news media provider must produce “core news content” in order to access bargaining under the Code. Core news content is described as content produced by a journalist that records, investigates or explains issues of public significance or relevant to democratic decision making; or content which relates to community and local events.

A concern we have is that it includes a requirement that this be produced by a “journalist” without defining what a journalist is. Previous government definitions of what a journalist is have been overly narrow and excluded freelancers, long-form print journalists and bloggers who write news in line with our Journalist Code of Ethics

A narrow definition of what journalism is may disqualify significant levels of content. The term “journalist” is and has never been defined in a way that is universally agreed.

What about freelancers who write for a publication—should fees be shared with them?

Ideally, the code would mandate accepted rates of payment for freelance work. There is a clear case for the code to expressly recognize the role of freelancers (as distinct from news businesses or corporations) in providing quality content and in being fairly remunerated for their work when their content is accessed through Google and Facebook—particularly given the increasingly important role they play in the media ecosystem by filling the gap left by redundancies in newsrooms.

The best way that government could act to support freelancers is amend the Fair Work Act to allow freelancers – like other Australian workers – the right to collectively bargain over wages and conditions.

Facebook has said it will prevent Australians from accessing or sharing news content. What would this mean for Australian media?

The threats are an overly dramatic response. MEAA believes the digital platforms have had plenty of opportunities to negotiate a reasonable and equitable solution, but they have chosen not to do so.

The public is now watching a campaign by these trillion-dollar companies, who are threatening to launch even more harm on media outlets and journalism jobs. But in doing so, they are really targeting their own users.    

How would you like to see the platforms respond?

By negotiating in good faith for an equitable solution that pays for the content they use in a way that is utilized to support the media industry.

Facebook says it has invested in Australian news businesses and intended to bring Facebook News, a platform feature that pays publishers for their content, to Australia. Is this not sufficient?

What Facebook has put into the media industry is a drop in the ocean compared the financial hole left by the near monopolies of Google and Facebook in advertising. Their contribution, like their negotiation, is not in good faith, but is more part of their PR budget than a serious contribution to the future of independent quality media in Australia.

The efforts to support the media industry to date do not begin to compensate news businesses for the content that the digital platforms have benefitted from. The platforms have had more than two years to work with the media industry on finding an equitable solution. They chose not to.