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November 26, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:47am

Why 18 Australian news minnows (and a billionaire’s charity) are clubbing together for big tech negotiations

By William Turvill

When the Australian government introduced its news media bargaining code earlier this year, it represented a world-first opportunity for publishers to negotiate cash-for-content deals with Google and Facebook. 

News Corp, Seven West, Nine and ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, have each agreed multi-million-dollar deals with the tech giants to become paid partners of Google News Showcase and Facebook News.

Other publishers to have signed deals with one or both of the platforms include the Guardian, Business Insider Australia, Yahoo Australia, Times News Group and Australian Community Media.

But, further down the food chain, it’s so far been a different story for some of Australia’s smaller news outlets. “The Morrison government initiative has served the larger news outlets well,” says Richard Bakker, the publisher of Q News. “Smaller independent public interest publishers have been largely forgotten.”

This week, Q News and 17 other small Australian news publishers clubbed together to form the Public Interest Publishers Alliance, which wants to collectively negotiate licensing deals with Google and Facebook.

With support from the Minderoo Foundation – the charity of mining billionaire Andrew Forrest – the group will take advantage of new collective bargaining rules recently introduced by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

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Negotiations will be led by Emma McDonald, a former senior adviser to Australia’s federal minister for communications who is now the director of policy for Frontier Technology, an arm of Minderoo that is focused on tech issues.

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She said: “Small Australian publishers who produce public interest journalism for their communities should be given the same opportunity as large publishers to negotiate for use of their content for the public benefit.”

Each of the 18 publishers in the collective is focused on public interest journalism and report annual revenues of less than AU$10m. They each “attract multicultural audiences, focus on issues at a local and regional level, and cover news that affects LGBTQI communities”.

The publishers are Naracoorte News, the Greek Herald, the Australian Jewish News, Australian Rural & Regional News, the Star Observer, City Hub Sydney, Australian Chinese Daily, Out in Perth, Australian Property Journal, Yanchep News Online, Q News, Time Out, Pro Bono Australia, Hills to Hawkesbury Community News, COSMOS Magazine, Primer Magazine, AcquisData and Renew Economy.

Why have publishers formed this alliance?

Scott Morrison’s Australian government passed the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code into law in February this year. The law requires “designated digital platforms” to pay news publishers for the use of their content.

But, as set out by Australia-based media analyst Hal Crawford in a Press Gazette article last month, no technology companies have yet been designated as digital platforms by the Australian government. Instead, Crawford wrote, Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg has “withheld the threat while first Google and then Facebook have busily done deals with Australian publishers”.

The upshot is that the largest publishers in Australia – News Corp, Seven West, Nine and ABC – have all struck agreeable (and confidential) deals with Google and Facebook.

Numerous smaller news brands and regional groups have also been paid to join News Showcase and/or Facebook News.

Many members of the Public Interest Publishers Alliance, however, believe they have been left behind and would risk not receiving any money from the tech giants if they were to attempt to negotiate alone.

‘Independent publishers have been ignored’

In a press release announcing the coalition’s launch, Fiona Fox, managing editor of Australian Rural and Regional News, noted that treasurer Frydenberg “made a number of optimistic statements regarding the code”.

“None of this has come to pass for the great majority of independent publishers in Australia who are producing public interest journalism on a daily basis,” she said.

“The federal government appears to believe that once the major players were paid multi-millions of dollars by Facebook and Google that the job was done. Wrong. The real work has only just begun of ensuring the maintenance of independent public interest journalism in Australia.”

Giles Parkinson, the founder and editor of Renew Economy, said: “The Morrison government’s deal with Google and Facebook delivered big money to big media such as News Corp, Nine, Seven, the ABC and the Guardian. But most independent publishers have been left out in the cold. Their ability to compete with big media is now at risk.”

David Redman, chief executive of the Australian Jewish News, said he wants the government “to designate these companies under the media bargaining code and enable independent public interest publishers to continue to serve their communities at a time when dispelling misinformation has never been more important”.

Nelson Yap, the editor of Australian Property Journal, said: “We support calls for the Morrison government to designate Google and Facebook under the code.

“Australia’s media landscape needs our independent voices. We are the lifeblood of local, metro, regional and multicultural communities. Our newsrooms might not be located within towering CBD office buildings, but across the nation the independent publishers support hundreds of journalists, photographers, graphic designers and more in local communities.

“But independent publishers have been ignored. Google and Facebook are hoping they have done enough deals with large and influencing media companies such as News Ltd, Nine, Seven West and the ABC, to take the issue off the front pages.”

Lawrence Gibbons, publisher of the Star Observer and City Hub, said that he had recently secured a deal with Google, but added “we have not had any luck reaching out to Facebook”.

“We encourage Google to look after other independent publishers as well,” he added. “We hope Facebook becomes a better corporate citizen and supports public interest publishers big and small.”

Will the group’s collective negotiation work?

Despite these publishers’ criticism of the Australian government, it is the ACCC’s new collective bargaining rules that have enabled the Public Interest Publishers Alliance to team up in negotiations with Google and Facebook. It would otherwise have been a breach of competition laws for them to do so.

The same rules allowed Country Press Australia to negotiate a deal for 70 of its member titles to join Google’s News Showcase programme. Commercial Radio Australia, which represents 261 member stations, also has collective bargaining power.

However, Crawford – a critic of the code who runs a Substack page focused on Australian media industry – is not convinced that collective bargaining will be a significant benefit to the Public Interest Publishers Alliance.

“It definitely strengthens their position,” he told Press Gazette. “The position is still quite weak though, because in the end the reason the code exists is the political pressure big media brought to bear on the Australian government. That pressure exists only because of big audiences. But these guys have small audiences.”

He questioned whether the Australian government would be inclined to “designate” Google or Facebook because such a move could jeopardise existing deals with large publishers.

“I think the best these small publishers could do would be to somehow get a group settlement out of the platforms, but that would not equate to a significant amount of money for any one company,” he added.

“You have to remember that their traffic will be small, so if compensation rests on traffic, it’s not going to be a lot. If it doesn’t rest on traffic… what are the platforms paying for exactly and how do you quantify it?”

Members of the Public Interest Publishers Alliance, backed by the charity of a billionaire, will likely be feeling more optimistic about their chances.

And, with several other countries considering implementing their own laws around licensing and collective bargaining, the group’s progress will be closely monitored by small and specialist publishers across the world.

Picture credit: Reuters/ Dado Ruvic

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