Independent publishers still #WaitingOnZuck as News Media Bargaining Code fails to address industry imbalance

“A piece of legislation and a policy, which was very high minded and had really good intentions, has created imbalance within the media ecosystem, which is a very unfortunate unintended consequence,” said Broadsheet founder and publisher, Nick Shelton of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) News Media Bargaining Code at the Mumbrella Publish conference on Wednesday.

Shelton spoke frankly when it came to the implications of the code for small independent publishers at a panel discussion breaking down the context, creation and outcomes of  the #WaitingOnZuck campaign that saw 30 independent publishers put a freeze on publishing for 24 hours in protest of Facebook’s failure to pay for content that appears on its platforms.

He was joined on the panel by The Conversation editor, Misha Ketchell, founder of Pro Bono Australia and PS Media, Karen Mahlab and Thinkerbell chief thinker and Decade of Action co-founder, Adam Ferrier.

Ketchell explained while the News Media Bargaining Code was created by the ACCC effectively as a “way of forcing Facebook and Google to pay publishers” for their content, it had failed in eliciting positive outcomes for many smaller publishers, who the tech platforms, and Meta in particular, declined to negotiate with.

Mahlab added: “The thing about the mandatory news media bargaining code was that you really need to have your big organisation start to talk to matter and Google and so you needed to have representatives, which meant meant that the larger organisations could do that, but the smaller organisations who really only might have four journalists, how do they then approach Google and matter to negotiate for themselves?”

“They went and they did deals with everyone you’d expect them to do straightaway, you seven, nine, ABC, etc.,” said Shelton. “Then they started making their way down the list to the smaller, independent publishers. And they thought, actually, I think we’ve done enough here, let’s just draw a line here and see where see if the government forces us to do deals.”

“So what that meant was all the providers of high quality journalism and news got left out. So the result of that is, there’s $200 million in the system, on the macro level, a great thing. But if you zoom in, it says, okay, the conversation is not funded. but the Guardian is funded with millions and millions of dollars, how are they expected to compete with each other?”

“The ACCC’s intention was absolutely not to create more conflict or less competition within the publishing environment. But that was a sort of the unintended outcome,” said Shelton.

It was in this that the #WaitingOnZuck campaign was born, brought to life by social cause agency, Decade of Action.

Ferrier joined the panel virtually to explain the idea behind the campaign, explaining that they needed an “idea that we could put into that environment, get the attention of all the people reading those various publications, but also importantly, get the attention of the media industry, the tech industry and government as well”.

Critically, this idea would utilise the assets the participating independent publishers already had, being “millions of eyeballs on their collective various publications”.

As to whether the campaign could have been seen as risky for involved publishers, in directly calling out Meta, Shelton gave a firm “no”, explaining that there was nothing to lose.

“It wasn’t like we had this partner that we were trying to build. They were just not answering emails, they were just refusing flat out to do anything. So we didn’t worry about our relationship with Facebook, it couldn’t have been worse.”

He explained that in the industry it wasn’t unpopular to be seen to “bash” Facebook, as “they seem to be widely seen as behaving badly, and as not very good corporate citizens.”

Touching on the outcomes of the campaign, and of the News Media Bargaining Code in general, for each of the panelist’s organisations, it was a mixed bag.

Overall, the panelists agreed that the campaign had been successful in giving Google a push to “come to the table”, even just for the sake of its own PR.

“I think there was a great surprise of the organising power of small publishers to actually get together on the same page and do something really creative and impactful. It’s certainly, you know, the discussions at the time had frozen with Google,” said Mahlab.

Pro Bono Australia and The Conversation were both beneficiaries of this, successfully obtaining some funding from Google, however, Broadsheet remains without funding from either platform.

As for the future of the Code, and whether Meta and Google will ever be designated and responsible for paying for publishers content, the panelists are not confident.

“I think one of the things that a lot of publishers are thinking about is how long this code will continue,” said Ketchell. “What actually will happen past the lifespan of the agreements, most of them are about three years. Certainly, you know, we’ve indicated it’s likely that Facebook will withdraw from news altogether, whether there’ll be future deals with Google is unclear. So I think a lot of publishers are using the injection of cash at the moment to try to build their businesses, build their audiences and build market share, which is, you know, perfectly reasonable, strategic thing to do. But for those businesses that didn’t get the money under the code, you know, as Nick’s pointing out, they’ve been placed at a competitive disadvantage. So there is a scenario in which over the next two or three years, they’ve got a fight other businesses that are quite cashed up with this extra money.”

In a final comment, Shelton questioned what might happen at the end of the existing agreements: “Let’s say that there were a couple of 100 journalists hired using the funding out of the code. If that code doesn’t exist, or it’s not renewed, or if the current government doesn’t take an interest in this, those hundreds of journalists lose their jobs, because the revenue isn’t there to support them. And it’s not just journalists, it’s marketing support, its technology support, it’s all the different things it takes to run a media business. So it’s not sustainable until the policy and the legislation is sustainable.”


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