Nearly two-thirds of news publishers believe their relationships with big tech platforms, such as Facebook and Google, have become more fraught in recent years, according to a global report examining the co-existence between journalism and the digital giants.
In a survey of 90 companies, the International News Media Association (INMA) found that 72 per cent of publishers describe their general attitudes towards digital platforms as “much more negative” or “slightly more negative” than they were only three years ago.
And, as the report notes, there are now more than 100 major official inquiries or legal cases by law makers against the top four digital platforms: Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
“There is a broad agreement among major authorities in different countries that these companies have grown too powerful and should be regulated,” says Robert Whitehead, author of the 94-page report, How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship.
“A global exercise has begun to co-ordinate investigations and share their research into the issues surrounding the platforms.”
The INMA-commissioned report is, according to the group’s executive director and CEO, “a first step” towards that goal.
“Publishers and platforms must work together to better bolster the journalism ecosystem. Yet we must first get on the same page across the breadth of issues. That’s what this report aspires to do,” Earl J. Wilkinson says in report’s foreword.
“We hear the daily developments, we hear the country-by-country and commission-by-commission stories, but nobody to date has wrapped their arms around the issues — both good and bad,” Wilkinson added in a statement to the Star.
The INMA initiative was overseen by a blue-ribbon committee consisting of Damian Eales of News Corp Australia, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten/Schibsted, Maribel Perez Wadsworth of the USA Today Network/Gannett and John Boynton, Torstar president and CEO, and publisher of the Toronto Star.
Building on the survey, conducted last spring, the report is based on dozens of interviews and analyses of regulatory developments. The committee hopes it will provide a much-needed roadmap for publishers to navigate increasingly complex and integrated digital relationships.
“We are an industry of local companies that can’t act globally. But there is no geographical nuance in the issues we face,” says Boynton. “The issues we face in Canada are the issues that publishers face everywhere.”
For example, the World Association of News publishers condemned Google in September for announcing that it will not pay publishers in France for search results as a result of a copyright law that comes into force this fall. The law means large platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube must pay for content beyond short extracts of work.
Google says, instead, they will block any results from European newspapers in France unless those papers grant free use of their content.
“This stance is not only disrespectful of the French government, it is also against a law that will soon be applicable in the entire territory of the European Union,” said the publishers’ association in a statement.
Platforms aggregating, but not paying for content has also been a bone of contention for publishers globally. They have long been lobbying for more transparency in the algorithms that the digital giants use to determine what comes up high in a search.
At stake is the way countries around the world, including Canada access their information and culture. A lack of local news and investigative journalism means citizens are less informed about their world. And that has implications for democracy.
“There needs to be more oversight by government because market forces won’t be able to fix most of these issues,” says Torstar’s Boynton. “That includes algorithms that determine what people see, whether it’s Canadian or foreign content. It’s something that ultimately determines what people’s business models will be and which Canadian companies survive.”
Whitehead, the former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, says the public first started to really become conscious of the impact of big tech during the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, where the British firm harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users to target in political advertising.
Since then, 2019 has been a watershed year for the number of investigations into big tech. The Canadian government’s own inquiry and report due this January looks into updating outdated laws to regulate platforms.
Significantly for the publishing industry, lawmakers are also understanding the importance of quality journalism to democracy and are leading inquiries into the impact of the big platforms on news media.
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“News and journalism are different to many other commercial activities in that they benefit both the individual and also society as a whole,” Australian Competition and Consumer Competition chair Rod Sims said in a report this year. “It is vital that media businesses are not disadvantaged through the exercise of market power or other mechanisms that make it difficult for them to compete on their merits.”
The U.S. News Media Alliance estimated that Google alone made $4.7 billion in 2018 from publishers through its search engine. Google has denied that figure, but there is no doubt that the search engine, along with Facebook, takes the lion’s share of the digital advertising market.
“The regulation of the digital platforms is bigger than one country or even a region such as Europe can effectively handle,” says Whitehead. “With so many countries setting up their own antitrust investigations, the plans to co-ordinate the regulator responses across their research efforts and prosecutions will prove critical.”
INMA, which is not a lobby group, is trying to connect the dots not only for its 11,000 members at 700 news media companies in 70 countries, but also for the consumers of news.
“I think finally people are starting to take notice and regulators are now seeing how important the issues are when it comes to the platforms,” says Boynton. “The public should rightfully be shocked at what’s going on.”
Based on the INMA survey, potential solutions to improving the publisher-platform relationship centre on three approaches:
- Direct action by platforms, such as prioritizing subscription content and introducing mechanisms to distinguish quality journalism;
- Changes in law where regulators would create a level playing field on a host of issues including taxation and copyright;
- And solutions involving collective bargaining where publishers could negotiate with big platforms on payment for content.
But more research and work needs to be done, according to the report, which describes itself as a potential playbook to help publishers turn their “wish lists into action.”
“Ideally, we hope that we can work things out and co-exist together and that it’s mutually beneficial,” says Boynton. “I’m hoping that someone realizes within the big platforms that in the long term the best play is to have a business relationship with publishers that is ultimately good for both sides.”
Over the next week, the Star will outline, in more detail, seven key issues identified in How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship as the most concerning to publishers.