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March 21, 2022updated 07 Nov 2023 5:41am

Australian indie publishers ‘freeze news’ in protest at exclusion from big tech bargaining

By Bron Maher

Independent Australian news sites are instigating a “news freeze” on Tuesday to protest big tech’s failures to pay for their content.

The publishers, who say they number around 30, will not publish for 24 hours from the beginning of Tuesday 22 March, Sydney time.

The strike comes as Australia reviews its landmark news media bargaining code, which forces designated tech giants to negotiate with the media for payment.

The campaign, created by social consultancy DOA (Decade of Action), is titled “#WaitingOnZuck”.

They say that they and their readers “are currently waiting on Zuckerberg (and his businesses), to come to the negotiating table and make commercial deals that are transparent, fair, and pay for quality independent journalism.

“The news freeze warns of a future without independent news if publishers don’t get a fair deal and a level playing field.”

Many of Australia’s biggest publishers have already signed deals that see them paid by the tech giants for their content, but many smaller titles have been left out.

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News Corp, Seven West, Nine and national broadcaster ABC are each paid partners of Google News Showcase and Facebook News.

The Guardian, Yahoo Australia, Times News Group and Australian Community Media have also all signed deals with one or both of the duopoly companies.

However, these deals pre-empted government intervention: Australia’s code only binds those companies that have been designated tech platforms by the country’s federal treasurer. To date, neither Facebook nor Google has been designated a platform under the code.

Giles Parkinson, editor of clean energy news site and freeze participant Renew Economy, wrote on his site: “The mainstream media have largely shut up about the failures of the news bargaining code, possibly because their loyalty has been bought by the social media giants.”

Nick Shelton, publisher of Broadsheet, a city guide also taking part in the strike, said: “Facebook and Google are in a position to pick the winners and losers in Australian media, which is something the Australian public should be very worried about.

“The only way for independent media to survive is to designate the platforms.”

In addition to its calls for the platforms to negotiate, the #WaitingOnZuck participants ask supporters to email Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg “and let him know that Mark Zuckerberg will continue to erode the Australian news media landscape without greater accountability for Facebook (Meta) to negotiate with independent publishers”.

Frydenberg led the introduction of the code in February of last year.

Karen Mahlab, who founded “social economy” news site Pro Bono Australia, which is also freezing its coverage on Tuesday, said: “The purpose of the Media Bargaining Code was to support public interest journalism. 

“I don’t believe its purpose is being met when small to medium sized publications who represent a huge diversity of opinions and views are left out of the equation.”

The campaign also suggests on its website that those looking to help “get in touch with Zuck: Email, Tweet, DM or maybe meet Zuck in the Metaverse.

“To be honest, he probably won’t reply. We know, because small and medium publishers have been trying to get a response all year.”

The campaign says that publishers who are not able to join the freeze, for example due to existing agreements, “will show their support in the form of campaign ads and editorial pieces”.

Australia’s efforts have been watched by governments and industries hoping to capture back some of the value generated by news but channelled away to Silicon Valley.

Canada has said it wants to implement a more transparent version of Australia’s code.

In the US, debate continues around the proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would suspend antitrust rules and allow media to club together to collectively negotiate with big tech.

And in February, senior sources at four major British news publishers told Press Gazette they foresaw Australia-style legislation in the UK.

Partial list of Australian outlets taking part in the freeze:

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