The News Media Bargaining Code would require digital services, specifically Google and Facebook, to cut a deal with publishers or enter into binding arbitration to determine the price they must pay to display their content. Google has responded by preparing to comply: contracting with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, among other conglomerates, to feature their output in a special section of its news tab, apparently in exchange for the freedom to include links and snippets in search. Facebook, on the other hand, has held firm — too firm, even, as its abrupt scrubbing-out of all news content led to the removal of various government pages and nonprofits — including public health resources amid a pandemic.
Is this a good result? It may be good for Mr. Murdoch, at least as far as the Google deal is concerned. It’s not good for Australians who got most of their news on Facebook, and who may be unlikely to seek it out elsewhere. It’s not good for publishers who benefited from having their content shared on the site, and indeed from sharing it themselves. And neither is it good for smaller publishers on Google who don’t qualify under the law to extract payment from platforms, and whose output may end up subordinate to the already powerful players who can do just that.
The measure seems to get reality backward. Certainly, Facebook and Google’s dual dominance of the digital advertising market helped smash journalism’s business model in the first place. But now that’s done, publishers (including The Post) make more money from the traffic and subscriptions they gain through platforms than platforms do from monetizing the material publishers put there. What platforms gain is high-quality content and a healthier information ecosystem. That’s why voluntary agreements in which platforms, for a fee, repackage publishers’ journalism for fuller integration into their product have become increasingly popular.
Relying on these agreements, of course, can feel a little like relying on a lion to nurture the same gazelle it just gored. They are also likely not enough to save a devastated industry. Governments everywhere, including in the United States, may want to ask whether they can play a role in reviving local journalism without compromising journalistic independence. They may also want to ask whether Google and Facebook should give back, via taxation, more of the money they are taking in. Those are two separate questions, however. Australia’s decision to fuse them will not produce one sound answer.