‘Trying to save the Titanic that’s sinking?’: Small publishers front senate in media code battle

In yesterday’s senate committee hearing, Neil Ackland – Junkee’s co-founder, CEO, and chief content, marketing and creative officer at owner Ooh Media – was clear about what could happen to outlets like Junkee should Google follow through on its threat to leave the market.

“The impact of that would undoubtedly put pressure on jobs, particularly journalism roles, and could potentially be fatal for businesses like ours and other small publishers in the space,” he told the senators.

“We take the threats very seriously and have been considering the repercussions of those threats very seriously as well.”

Neil Ackland – Junkee’s co-founder

Ackland detailed how it’s a “double-edged sword” that most of Junkee’s traffic – 75% – comes from Facebook and Google.

The code’s proposal for digital platforms to notify publishers of algorithm changes – which Facebook and Google strongly oppose – would assist Junkee, Ackland said, because the temperamental nature of the algorithms makes it difficult to implement a long-term editorial strategy and invest in long-form journalism.

Junkee has had a “longstanding and productive” relationship with Facebook and Google, editorial director Rob Stott noted, including a deal with Facebook. It is also in the early stages of a conversation with Google around its Showcase product (which the search engine submits is a better way to pay for news than through the code).

Any revenue Junkee made from the code payments would be funnelled directly into journalism, Stott promised, although he was cautious around “being too prescriptive” given different companies would spend money on journalism in different ways.

The youth publisher’s testimony was clear: Junkee supports the code, but does not want Facebook to pull news links or Google to remove its search function.

‘Google and Facebook, they haven’t stolen the content, they haven’t stolen the advertising’: Eric Beecher

The Australia Institute’s Peter Lewis, meanwhile, was vocal that he was “appalled” by threats the government should not cower to, lest it set a precedent. “Chairman Mao would have approved,” he said.

But chair of InDaily’s Solstice Media and Crikey’s Private Media, Eric Beecher, was far less critical of the platforms. His outlets have also struck deals with Google, and his focus was on preserving a level of media diversity in a market he said is dominated by an entertainment company (Nine) and foreign-controlled newsrooms (News Corp and Guardian Australia which is owned by UK based The Guardian).


“They’ll [big media companies] get more money to make more money,” he said of the code, should modifications not be made.

“Maybe it’s just I’m a bit battle weary, because I’ve spent the last couple of decades competing directly with these big news publishers. But my suspicion would be that they would expect to get absolutely the lion’s share, and they would expect to dominate the revenue outcome of this code, just like they dominate Australian news publishing.”

The government needs to ensure the platforms are willing to “play ball” by addressing their concerns, since the code is meaningless unless Facebook and Google are party to it,  Beecher continued. But equally, the government has a “once in a lifetime” to address media diversity without “harming or endangering” the big outlets.

“If you wound the clock back a few years and someone had said ‘The Federal Government is going to introduce legislation forcing third parties over there to pay us for our news journalism’, I think we would have all raised our eyebrows, to say the least.

“Having said that … I think it will make a huge difference to the viability and continuity of public interest journalism in this country, particularly if it’s framed correctly, which I don’t think it is yet, with some emphasis on diversity of ownership.”

Rather than a legislative instrument forcing tech companies to pay publishers for content they link to, Beecher “see[s] it more like a social licence”.

“Google and Facebook, they haven’t stolen the content, they haven’t stolen the advertising. I think that’s a crazy pretext on which to base this,” he contended.

“But, putting that to one side, the idea that organisations of that size who have benefitted so much from digital advertising to pay a social licence in a country like this … that goes into public interest journalism that supports our democracy, I think would be a fantastic outcome.”

Country Press Australia (CPA), which represents “some of the smallest newspapers in the country” across regional areas, also presented to the committee. President Paul Thomas admitted he doesn’t know if the code will save local media, but strongly opposed the inclusion of public broadcaster, the ABC.

The ABC has not been impacted by the platforms’ erosion of publisher advertising revenues, CPA argued, and including the government-funded ABC in the pool of eligible outlets could dilute the amount of money commercial outfits receive.

A senator countered that the arbitration process would fix this, given an arbitrator would decide on an amount if a platform and news company could not come to an agreement.

But the ABC’s inclusion creates “unfair competition to some extent”, the CPA continued. Given the ABC offers a free product, versus the paywalled content of many member newspapers, the CPA said that should local news outlets not be protected, “you’ll end up with the ABC, you’ll end up with Nine and News Corp”.

‘What are we doing here? Trying to save the Titanic that’s sinking?’

In the last session of the day, the Treasury – the government department responsible for the code and instructing the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to carry out digital platforms and ad tech inquiries – struggled to answer pointed questions from the senators.

Meghan Quinn, deputy secretary of the markets group, said “it’s hard to understand” what Facebook and Google following through on their respective threats would look like, to which Senator Alex Gallacher responded: “It’s pretty clear, they said they would bugger off.”

Quinn would not offer an opinion on whether Bing or DuckDuckGo are adequate substitutes should “armageddon” happen and Google leaves the market, and continued to face difficult questions from Senator Gallacher, including: “I’m trying to get really specific, Treasury-like detail. I can get a commentary from the newspaper, or give it meself [sic]. So what I’m saying is, have you looked at the impact on small business … what is the impact on those businesses going to look like and have you modelled it?”

The senator also directed questions to the Treasury panel on the government’s advertising spend.

“Given the size of the government’s media spend, or advertising spend, haven’t you been complicit in defunding those organisations by moving to other methods of advertising anyway?” he asked.

“[The government has] been chasing a more efficient spend, which presumably has moved you from print media to digital media or Facebook or Google or whatever. Is that true?”

A Treasury official responded: “Decisions around advertising spend and so forth are made through the Department of Finance … I’m not in a position to comment on that, senator.”

But Senator Gallacher continued, asking that since “the federal government is a huge spender”, “if you’re doing what everybody else is doing [directing ad spend to digital channels rather than print media], what are we doing here? Trying to save the Titanic that’s sinking?”

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also repeatedly asked if the government has a contingency plan if Google were to leave the market, which Quinn struggled to answer, claiming “it’s not quite a simple conversation at all” but different scenarios have been considered.

“It doesn’t feel like there is much confidence that you’re aware as to what will happen if Google pulls out,” Senator Hanson-Young reiterated.

“We had the Treasurer on the ABC yesterday morning saying that there were alternatives. So there must be a plan, otherwise is he just freewheeling?”

Quinn did confirm that last week, Google offered to take Treasury through its Showcase product.

The committee hearing came just over a week after the first, in which News Corp, Nine, and Guardian Australia gave testimony, in addition to Facebook and Google. In that hearing, Google publicly confirmed it would withdraw from the Australian market should the code, in its current form, become law.


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