What issue could be urgent enough to move the publishers of most of the country’s newspapers to unite in a common cause – and not only management, but the leader of their largest union, as well? The pandemic crisis? The recession? World peace?
Not exactly. The issue that prompted the nation’s newspapers to take out full-page advertisements in themselves over the weekend was rather – would you believe it – newspaper ad sales. Specifically, the mortal threat to these posed by that baleful duo, Google and Facebook.
The notion that Google and Facebook are to blame for the industry’s woes, stealing the content they use to steal our ads, is a perennial publishers’ complaint. But it took on new life recently after France and Australia separately launched initiatives to force the two mega-platforms to share more of their advertising revenues with each country’s newspapers.
Or, as the publishers’ ad described it, to ensure they “pay their fair share” instead of “making billions of dollars off the back of original content producers.” Unifor leader Jerry Dias was even more strident, claiming the two “marauding tech giants” had “pillaged the Canadian digital advertising market,” drawing traffic to their sites using content “they don’t pay a cent for.”
That’s the rhetoric. What’s the reality? First, the search and social sites don’t “take” our content: they link to it. Far from using newspaper content to attract people to their sites, they drive readers to ours. Indeed, more than half of the typical newspaper’s online readership comes from people clicking on Google or (less so) Facebook links.
The links are usually accompanied by short snippets of text from the corresponding articles, but that’s allowed under most countries’ copyright laws. The concept is known as “fair dealing,” or “fair use” in the U.S., and it’s one that should be familiar to the news business, as we do the same every day, quoting from other people’s work.
There’s no doubt, second, that FacebookGoogle make a lot of money from advertising, some of which used to go to our business. But the reason for this has nothing to do with pillage. It’s because they offer advertisers a better product – ads that appear not just when people look at a news page but whenever they’re looking for anything, tailored to particular interests, tastes and values, and displayed not just at one point in the online universe but wherever people with those interests can be found.
Google, indeed, is far less dependent on the news business than we are on them. Google doesn’t sell a lot of ads off news searches, as opposed to searches for things people are interested in buying. Look under the hood, by contrast, of most newspapers’ online ads, and you’ll find an “Ads by Google” logo. Google sells the ads; the newspapers display them; each takes a cut. You might call it “revenue sharing.”
That symbiosis is apparent in other ways. If search is such a threat, you’d think you wouldn’t see so many newspapers tarting up their pages in the name of “search engine optimization.” If sharing is stealing, it’s a wonder we’re so careful to attach “Like this” to every article. The newspapers, then, are not the injured parties deserving of remedy they make themselves out to be. At bottom, their case to the government amounts to: FacebookGoogle have pots of money. Make them give us some.
As, indeed, governments have. Perhaps you remember an earlier French intervention, the 2013 Digital News Initiative, under which Google agreed to distribute €60-million to various newspaper pet projects. That was followed two years later by the Europe-wide Google News Initiative, worth another €150-million.
The result, according to Frédéric Filloux, a French professor of journalism and digital entrepreneur, has been only “to reinforce the addiction to subsidies that plague the industry” – of which the latest French effort, applying newly concocted European copyright laws to Google’s use of snippets, is simply an extension.
That’s not to say there aren’t other issues raised by FacebookGoogle’s dominance of online advertising, without getting into bogus claims of copyright infringement and dubious remedies such as “link taxes.” There’s just plain old abuse of market power, for one, which is the substance of Australia’s initiative.
Ultimately the issue of how to share online advertising revenues is one to be negotiated between the platforms and the publishers. If FacebookGoogle have disproportionate bargaining power, perhaps there are ways to level the table – by allowing the industry to bargain as a single unit, for example, as is currently under consideration in the United States.
Advertising isn’t going to save the industry, however. Neither is government. What will? Making better newspapers, and convincing readers to pay for them. I wish it were more complicated, but it isn’t.
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