Democracies around the world are all mired in one crisis or another, which is why measures of their health is moving in the wrong direction. Many see the decline of the information industry as a contributing factor. It’s no wonder, then, that the question of how to pay for journalism is an urgent matter and that some governments are implementing ambitious plans. Big ideas for putting billions of dollars back into newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to bet on more than one.
One such idea grabbed the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would force search and social media platforms to pay news agencies to link to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is making deals with big companies like News Corp, Nine and Seven West Media. But Facebook has gone the other way – rather than paying for the news to appear on its platform, the social media giant has blocked users from fully accessing and sharing Australian news.
The reactions were quick. Some commentators have rushed to Facebook’s actions as proof of its monopoly intent and lack of concern for civic discourse. Others blame the Australian government for bowing to the protectionist interests of media buddies like Rupert Murdoch, and putting tech companies in an absurd position.
Australia’s approach is currently under review by lawmakers and regulators in several other governments. Reuters reports that Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has said Canada will model its own legislation on Australian law. There are also some similarities in a bill proposed by US Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who “would provide a temporary safe haven for online content publishers to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms under which their content may be distributed.”
In general, these measures aim to strengthen the bargaining power of news organizations and help them extract value from tech giants for content produced by newsrooms. The novelty of the Australian model lies in its arbitration mechanism, a sort of membrane between the parties intended to help them arrive at a fair exchange of value.
Australian law is likely to be passed, so this grand experiment of returning capital to the news media will soon be underway. We’ll see how it works and whether the concerns of opponents are justified – whether large news agencies are favored over small ones, for example, or whether the money ends up being spent to produce more journalism.
But given the objections to this approach, what other options are there? If the new subscription models are not enough to support the media industry, what else can be done to fend off billions of dollars in journalism?