Vital Signs. Google shouldn’t subsidise journalism, but the government could



Jeff Chiu/AP

Richard Holden, UNSW

You might have missed it – what with the biggest recession since the 1930s and a pandemic going on – but there may be big, and bad, changes happening to a media landscape near you.

Right now the Australian government is considering amending the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to force Google and Facebook to pay local commercial media organisations for the sharing of their content on the digital platforms.

The News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will require the tech and media companies to make terms through “mandatory binding arbitration”. It will also oblige them to divulge parts of their core intellectual property (such Google’s search algorithm).

It has been lauded as a world-first in addressing the power imbalance between the platforms and traditional news organisations.

Champions such as commission chief Rod Sims argue it’s a simple matter of forcing Google and Facebook to pay a fair price for extracting value from journalism for which they pay nothing. As Sims put it:

What this was all about was the imbalance in bargaining power, the market failure that comes from that, and underpayment for news having a detrimental effect on Australian society.

Who could argue with that? Even federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has described it as “a question of fairness”.

But from an economic standpoint the whole bargaining code is hopelessly confused. It fails to properly understand the source of competitive pressure for media companies, and why they have lost revenues over the last 15 years.

Mandatory binding arbitration between tech and media companies is also a completely inappropriate policy tool to achieve the public policy goal of fostering high-quality journalism.

As I have written about in detail for the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, making the code law risks doing serious harm to Australian consumers while shovelling money to large media companies like Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia.

Faced with the prospect of having to divulge key intellectual property, it would not be surprising if Google and Facebook simply prefer not to be in the Australian market. Millions of Australians using Google, YouTube and Facebook will lose out.

Media revenue sinking

Between 2002 and 2018, consulting firm AlphaBeta estimates total annual revenue for Australian newspapers fell from A$4.4 billion to A$3.0 billion. Almost all of this was due to lost classified advertising revenue, worth A$1.5 billion in 2002 but just A$200 million in 2018.

“That’s Google’s fault,” you might cry.

Actually no. The vast bulk of lost classified advertising revenue was due to online “pure-plays” such as Seek, Domain and Carsales. Google and Facebook took basically none of this revenue.




Read more:
Billions lost, boards to blame: Colleen Ryan on the rise and fall of Fairfax


The media companies were sitting on a gold mine of classified advertising. Then there was massive technological disruption due to the internet and smart phones.

That, as they say in the classics, is show business.

It doesn’t justify making companies who happened to succeed in an adjacent space at the same time fork over a chunk of their revenues.

But aren’t tech companies ‘stealing’ content?

If big tech companies were somehow allowing you and me free access to content we would otherwise have to pay for, there might be a case to answer.

That would be like Google Maps not only giving you directions to a restaurant but the means to also avoid paying for your meal.

But using a search engine does not allow you to get free meals, nor to get around a news organisation’s pay wall.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


In fact, having their content pop up in search results, or shared on social media, helps Australian media companies to attract readers and sell subscriptions – something that now accounts for roughly half the revenues of some leading players such as The Australian.

All you get for “free” is a snippet of a line or two from the search.

For instance, when I searched for news about recently deceased US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I got this:

If you can figure out the full content of the article from that snippet, you should be using your superpowers for other, more lucrative purposes.

Beware the politics

There is a very real risk this misguided code will end up becoming law.

An overzealous regulator has proposed something that stands to benefit the big media companies, who are – not surprisingly – strongly for it.

Those same media companies have huge influence over public perceptions and the fate of politicians. It will be a brave elected representative who pushes back on the proposed code and draft legislation.

But if politicians were serious about resolving the real issue at stake in all of this, they would act more directly.

Like newspapers all around the world, Australian media and journalists are under pressure – and one thing most people agree on is that high-quality news and journalism is critical to a well-functioning democracy.




Read more:
Platform regulation in Australia is just the start. Facebook and Google are fighting a global battle


Whatever the market forces that have slashed the funding of such journalism, there is a strong case for government intervention. But if the Australian government wants to subsidise high-quality journalism, it should do it itself.

With the 10-year bond rate less than 1%, it would cost the government just A$18 million a year to fund the interest bill on A$2 billion of media subsidies a year. That’s 72 cents per Australian a year.

And all without driving away the hugely valuable services of companies like Google and Facebook that Australian consumers love.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC’s news media bargaining code



Shutterstock

Damien Spry, University of South Australia

Google and Facebook have threatened to limit or remove news services for Australian users, in response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code.

This week, Facebook announced should the code become law, the company would stop letting publishers and users share local and international news on its Australian Facebook and Instagram sites.

Google has also made implicit threats to limit its Australian news services – potentially by removing Google News in Australia, as it did in Spain in 2014.

Arguments in favour of the code centre on two points. First, that Australian media outlets are in critical danger of going bust because of Google and Facebook’s dominance of the digital advertising market.

Second, that Google and Facebook are Godzilla-like entities dominating the market and resisting any regulation attempt – especially one that could set an international precedent.

It’s true regulation has a role in addressing the anti-competitive aspects of the digital advertising industry, but I have doubts about the ACCC’s code. It would allow commercial news businesses to bargain with Google and Facebook, in order to be paid for Australian news content included on their platforms.

But I don’t think it will work (which I say reluctantly as both Google and Facebook have much to answer for). I also don’t think the code is fair – and there’s a better way to solve the problem.




Read more:
In a world first, Australia plans to force Facebook and Google to pay for news (but ABC and SBS miss out)


Misunderstanding how news works on social media

For years, Facebook has tinkered with its algorithm to prioritise posts from users’ personal connections, in what chief Mark Zuckerberg characterised as a preference for the digital lounge over the digital town square.

Basically, your Facebook News Feed (the main feed in which you discover new content) isn’t really a “news” feed. Rather, it features personalised content from those you most often, or have most recently, connected with.

If a news story appears on your feed, it has likely been shared by one of your connections. Or, you may be following that company’s Facebook page, or the company may have paid to advertise (boost) the content.

Which news stories you come across on Facebook depends on a variety of factors and algorithmic decisions. This process is complicated and vastly different to how news is presented on a publication’s website, or in a newspaper.

The ACCC’s attempt to have media businesses “fairly” paid for the value of Australian news on social media is problematic because accurately attributing value to this content is anything but straightforward.

It’s worth noting a major point of resistance against the ACCC code is the requirement for Google and Facebook to give 28 days’ notice of algorithmic changes that will affect either referral traffic to news, or the ranking of news behind paywalls.

A person engages with content on facebook via their mobile.
Social media algorithms dictate you’re more likely to be exposed to content that reflects your past online activity, as well as the activity of your online friends.
Shutterstock

The opaque business of digital advertising

Commercial news today is funded largely through advertising based on audience numbers and demographics, rather than content alone (excluding subscription models).

Traditionally, however, audiences have been targeted based on news content. For example, ads for wedding dresses would be placed in bridal magazines. In such scenarios, the content itself is valuable to advertisers because it attracts their specific audience.

In digital advertising, however, the news content is often secondary or even inconsequential for generating ad revenue. The ads target their audience directly based on a user profile of recorded behaviours, characteristics and preferences. The page the ad appears on may be a factor, but one of many.

This is called programmatic advertising. When you visit a site, an automated “bidding war” is instantly conducted where your user profile is matched against potential advertisers. The winner takes the ad spot – and this is decided by several factors including offer price, as well as the likelihood of the ad being clicked.

All of this happens in the time it takes for a website to load (about 200 milliseconds).

The ACCCC code proposes remuneration for publishers based on a negotiated value of news content, but the value of news for online advertisers isn’t derived from the content as much as the targeted audience.

Hence, the tussle between the ACCC, Google and Facebook is both confusing and confused.

Assessing the value of news

The ACCC code also conflates the ways digital news content and social media users are socially and commercially valued. In explaining the need for the code, the ACCC states:

While bargaining power imbalances exist in other areas, the bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and major digital platforms is being addressed as a strong and independent media landscape is essential to a well-functioning democracy.

This “public sphere” ideal is the premise for treating news content as being important enough to force digital giants to subsidise it. Fair enough, but the ACCC’s “professional standards test” which news businesses must pass to qualify for remuneration sets a low bar.

It doesn’t consider important aspects of public interest journalism, such as concentration of ownership, or newsroom diversity – a vexed issue in Australia’s news landscape.

Also, the code states the ABC and SBS are not able to claim remuneration (but can still benefit from information about algorithms and data). This is based on the idea that commercial news media are more vulnerable than public broadcasters, due to advertising revenue lost to Google and Facebook.

With this, the argument has changed: the value of news is not only democratic, it’s also commercial.

There is another way

It seems Google and Facebook would rather take extreme measures than be forced to pay for news, or provide news businesses information about algorithm changes and user data. Both companies have claimed they provide greater value to Australian news businesses than they receive.

Perhaps the way forward is to regulate programmatic advertising. Specifically, we should scrutinise the complex network of companies that discretely trade data profiles and advertising space. And this industry is dominated by, guess who, Google and Facebook.

Reform in this space may help address the advertising revenue and market power problems the code seeks to resolve.

The ACCC’s next cab off the rank is a review and report on the ad tech industry that considers these issues.

Hopefully it will suggest approaches to regulating the digital advertising market. This seems a better option than the compensation currently being sought.




Read more:
How the shady world of the data industry strips away our freedoms


The Conversation


Damien Spry, Lecturer, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If Facebook really pulls news from its Australian sites, we’ll have a much less compelling product



Shutterstock

Rob Nicholls, UNSW

Facebook has announced it will ban publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram if a proposal to force tech giants to pay for news becomes law.

The announcement follows the release of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code, under which Google and Facebook would be forced to pay for news on their sites to help fund public interest journalism. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced in April the code would be mandatory.

On its website, Facebook Australia’s Will Easton said:

Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.

Google is campaigning against the same draft code, telling users of Google Search and YouTube the services would be under threat unless the government dumped its proposed revenue-sharing laws.




Read more:
‘Suck it and see’ or face a digital tax, former ACCC boss Allan Fels warns Google and Facebook


Facebook risks making its products less compelling

If Facebook follows through with this threat, it will potentially lead to very uncompelling content on both Facebook and Instagram. Can you imagine Instagram or Facebook without the ABC or Australian news sources?

How are you going to share interesting information with family and friends without being able to put links into posts?

Facebook claims the ACCC code “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet”. But it seems Facebook misunderstands how mandatory industry codes work. If you want to be a platform business in Australia, you have to follow the relevant code. If not, you can exit.

The ACCC code is similar to the franchising code of conduct. For instance, if I want to set up a pizza franchise in Australia, as a franchisee I have to abide by the franchising code of conduct.

Those are the rules of the game in Australia because there’s a recognised power imbalance between franchisors and franchisees. The same goes for news media businesses and social media platforms.

Facebook’s public response focuses largely on the exchange of money for news content but the ACCC code is much broader than that; it’s not just a way for news media businesses to be paid. It recognises Australian news content on social media platforms provides value to both sides and any resulting payment is simply a net of that value.

On the other hand, Facebook has suggested it will have to pay for every bit of news that appears on its platforms. In fact, the code allows for the private values of each news media business to be revealed during negotiations, which may end up in a price that is actually very low for Facebook, or even free.

The ACCC allows for both the news media businesses and platform businesses to negotiate, but Facebook’s threat today suggests they are in no mood for negotiation.

A blanket ban

If Facebook sticks to its claims, it would need to implement a blanket ban on all Australian news media businesses.

This proposition isn’t compelling because it means no news at all. And then there’s the issue of fringe news and information sources.

You could argue citizen journalists and amateur news content creators aren’t media businesses, so you’ll still have them – but they won’t have the checks and balances in place required by the media industry.

Sources such as QAnon actively and deliberately spread misinformation and will also remain. These sources could cause irreparable damage if they go unchecked or without any reliable rebuttal.

A calculated, commercial response

Facebook’s position is a commercial one and presumably has been carefully thought through.

To the extent Facebook fails to go ahead with the threat of removing all news for Australian users, the platform will inevitably be captured by the ACCC code.

If they were to post news without paying, the ACCC would likely come down on Facebook. The penalties could be as high as 10% of Facebook’s annual revenue in Australia.

What about Facebook News?

Facebook News offers news content from approved publishers (who are paid), collated for users to consume within the Facebook platform. The service launched last year in the US and could have been a viable option for Australia’s news media businesses.

But this service wasn’t offered early enough to Australia. The current debacle is a result of both Facebook and Google holding back in negotiations when there could have been a voluntary code of conduct much earlier.

Voluntary codes are non-mandatory sets of standards that aim to help organisations such as industry associations deal with their members and customers. They only apply to those who sign up to them.

Initially, the ACCC was directed to try to negotiate a voluntary code and the change to a mandatory one was driven by the failure of these negotiations.

It’s Facebook’s failure to make a sensible offer early enough that has landed it in this position.

At the end of the day, if Facebook follows through on its threat, we’ll end up with a platform that is much less appealing. More than anything else, that’s likely to drive the decline of Facebook.




Read more:
In a world first, Australia plans to force Facebook and Google to pay for news (but ABC and SBS miss out)


The Conversation


Rob Nicholls, Associate professor in Business Law. Director of the UNSW Business School Cybersecurity and Data Governance Research Network, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Facebook and Google used to be the future of news. But now media companies need more strings to their bow



Kedar Dhond/Unsplash, CC BY

James Meese, RMIT University and Edward Hurcombe, Queensland University of Technology

Given the recent commentary about the reforms proposed for the news media sector, you would be forgiven for thinking Google and Facebook are the only game in town.

The planned reforms arose from last year’s Digital Platforms Inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which focused squarely on the corporate behaviour of these two tech behemoths.

It is clear Google and Facebook will be the first platforms regulated under the draft mandatory code that will potentially force them to pay for content produced by Australian news media companies. The move is a response to what the ACCC describes as “a significant bargaining power imbalance […] between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook”.

This idea that news companies are essentially stuck with Google and Facebook, for better or worse, is a common view. Yet while that might have been true a few years ago, media companies are realising there are other ways to cultivate readers, and there’s no need to be beholden to tech platforms that generate clicks but don’t want to pay for the privilege.

In the mid-2010s, many news companies seemed to follow Facebook’s every move. When Facebook promoted video, the media invested in video. When it down-ranked clickbait headlines, content writers frantically altered their style to maintain their presence in the news feed. Newsrooms have had a similarly dependent (albeit less direct) relationship with Google.

The focus on adapting to Google and Facebooks’s algorithms completely changed newsroom practices over the past decade, as journalists have weighed editorial considerations against audience metrics.

Is this still the case?

This dependency developed at a time when major platforms, particularly Facebook, were engaging substantially with the distribution of news. But in recent years this trend has declined, as governments have begun to regulate platforms in response to concerns over “fake news”.

Facebook performed perhaps the most public pivot, changing its algorithm in January 2018 to promote content from users’ friends and family. As a result, traffic to news sites fell, leaving profit-starved media companies to pursue alternative strategies or simply lay off staff.




Read more:
‘Suck it and see’ or face a digital tax, former ACCC boss Allan Fels warns Google and Facebook


In our research, published earlier this year, we spoke to 15 Australian journalists and editors who had collectively worked across 11 media companies after the dust had settled from the 2019 crisis.

We asked them whether their companies still depend on Facebook for traffic, or whether they have moved to other platforms, or are now doing something else entirely to cultivate their readership.

Breaking up with Facebook

Many respondents, particularly those who had worked at newer companies focused on social media, revealed they had followed the demands of the Facebook algorithm at times. They had pivoted to video and had focused on share counts. However, respondents working at older media companies also noted that lots of readers still visited their publication’s home page, which challenges the idea that companies depend totally on Facebook.

Companies were also exploring different ways of generating revenue. These included placing ads inside content (known as native advertising) and holding events.

The standout trend, however, was a renewed focus on subscriptions, ensuring that a certain percentage of readers actually paid money for the news product at some point.

The Conversation (which does not charge for access to its content) was one of the newsrooms that saw a steep drop in traffic as a result of the January 2018 algorithm change. As such, it has pivoted its digital strategy to prioritise the channels over which it has the most control, particularly its daily newsletter.

That’s not to say companies have stopped trying to engage with big platforms. Many are consciously trying to make their news easy to find via Google search (a process called search engine optimisation. Some companies (including The Conversation) have also begun distributing news through Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

Yet although the big platforms are doubtless here to stay, our research reveals a distinctly changed relationship between news and social media, compared with the past decade. Many companies, particularly newer ones like Buzzfeed and Vice, previously built huge audiences off the back of social media, and grew at a dizzying rate as a result. Now, companies are more interested in securing a stable revenue stream than in harvesting clicks.

The pandemic effect

This has become even more important amid the economic chaos caused by COVID-19. Advertising spending has dried up, leading to another round of media industry layoffs.

This suggests news media are still struggling to secure an alternative income stream to plug the hole in advertising revenue. The big question is whether big tech platforms will step in and help fill the gap by making financial contributions to news providers. Google’s current campaign against the draft mandatory code suggests they are deeply unwilling to do this.




Read more:
Google’s ‘open letter’ is trying to scare Australians. The company simply doesn’t want to pay for news


Our research shows the relationship between news media and big tech platforms is far from straightforward. This is supported by a recent survey, which found that while many young people access news through social media, older people still prefer television or news websites. Not every Australian gets their news via social media.

There may come a time when platforms become the central access point for news, but it hasn’t happened yet. This doesn’t mean the ACCC should abandon platform regulation, but it does mean news companies are probably wise to find other ways of reaching their readers while they still can.The Conversation

James Meese, Research fellow, RMIT University and Edward Hurcombe, Research associate, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC has for too long been unwilling to push back against interference – at its journalists’ expense



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

For those who watch the affairs of the ABC through the eyes of a critical friend, the removal of Emma Alberici, made public on August 21, is deeply disturbing.

It is the climax to a destructive series of events that began more than two years ago and once again draws attention to two serious weaknesses in the ABC’s management arrangements.

One is structural: the editor-in-chief is fatally compromised in that role by also being managing director. The managing director has corporate responsibilities that conflict with his or her editorial responsibilities every time the government tightens the financial screws.

That is not a reflection on David Anderson’s character or probity; it is the inevitable consequence of having the one person in both roles.

It also happens that Anderson – like his ill-fated predecessor Michelle Guthrie – is not a journalist. This makes it hard for him to give the kind of editorial leadership the ABC requires.




Read more:
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The second weakness is cultural. This long pre-dates Anderson’s term and is the product of sustained hostility from successive Coalition governments going back to the start of the Howard prime ministership in 1996.

The preceding 12 years of the Hawke-Keating governments had hardly been a golden age for the ABC, but it generally got year-on-year funding increases.

And in the tough-minded minister for communications, Michael Duffy, it had a defender in cabinet who was prepared to confront Hawke and other ministers infuriated by some of the ABC’s reporting.

As for the three years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interlude, Labor was too busy tearing itself to pieces to bother with the ABC.

Former Prime Minister John Howard
Concerted government attacks on the ABC began under John Howard.
Mark Graham/AAP

Now, according to Anderson, after six years of cumulative budget cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administrations, the total effective reduction in ABC funding will amount to A$105.9 million per year by 2022.

And as for defenders in cabinet, the present communications minister, Paul Fletcher, is as mute as a swan.

Clearly all this has sapped morale.

In September 2018, a dossier compiled by Michelle Guthrie was leaked, revealing an email in which Justin Milne, as chair of the ABC, told her to get rid of Alberici, declaring the government “hate her”.

Over the preceding months, the government had repeatedly criticised stories Alberici had done in her role as chief economics correspondent.

Guthrie’s dossier came to light in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald at a time when the ABC had decided to sack her. In the ensuing “firestorm” – Milne’s word – he was consumed as well.




Read more:
ABC inquiry finds board knew of trouble between Milne and Guthrie, but did nothing


Milne had been concerned also with the work of political editor Andrew Probyn. He wanted Guthrie to “shoot” Probyn because the government hated him too and his continued presence was putting at risk half-a-billion dollars in funding for the ABC.

Assuming Milne and Guthrie were telling the truth, there could not be a clearer instance of how the government was using funding to undermine the ABC’s editorial independence.

The effects of this sustained intimidation are felt a long way down the ABC’s editorial food chain.

In May 2018, Barnaby Joyce accepted a reported $150,000 fee to appear with his lover on Channel Seven and talk about the affair that ended Joyce’s marriage and was a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. The ABC asked me to write a commentary on it.

I filed an article saying Joyce’s decision to take money for telling a story that concerned his public duties called into question his fitness for public office.

There was an awkward response from within the ABC indicating some disquiet further up the line. Would I mind not saying that about Joyce?

The rest of that exchange was off the record, but suffice to say I minded very much and withdrew the article. It later appeared unchanged in The Conversation and The Age.

That incident – small in itself but large in principle – revealed a malaise in editorial leadership at several levels.

Four months later came the revelations in Guthrie’s dossier about Milne’s attempts to have Probyn and Alberici sacked. It seems reasonable to infer word was filtering down from the top that if the ABC wanted to avoid yet more trouble from the government, it had better mind its manners.

Former ABC chair Justin Milne and former managing director Michelle Guthrie
Justin Milne told Michelle Guthrie to sack Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn because the government hated them.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Alberici is now gone anyway, part of a wave of 200 redundancies announced by Anderson in June in response to the latest round of budget cuts.

It is clear from a leak of correspondence between her lawyer and the ABC the parting was anything but amicable, having finished up in the Fair Work Commission.

Her position as chief economics correspondent had been abolished and she was offered positions as a presenter. Alberici tweeted she wanted a reporting job.

So the ghosts of Justin Milne, Malcolm Turnbull and Michelle Guthrie continue to haunt the ABC.

The board that presided over the Milne-Guthrie implosion is still largely intact, despite having come out badly from a Senate inquiry into that debacle.

The committee of inquiry said:

This catalogue of events may give rise to the perception that the ABC Board had not been sufficiently active in protecting either the ABC’s independence from political interference or its own integrity.

And the structural and cultural weaknesses laid bare by the saga remain.

The strategy the Howard government developed for dealing with the ABC – funding cuts, pointless inquiries and cultural warfare – is being followed to the letter by the present government.

2017 was a vintage year, and sums up the problems:

  • Abbott’s cuts from three years earlier were working their way through the system

  • Pauline Hanson, smarting from a Four Corners investigation, secured a promise from the government to hold an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS operated on a “level playing field” (Answer: yes they did)

One of history’s many lessons is that appeasement does not work. Editorial executives have one over-riding responsibility: to provide a safe environment in which their staff can do independent journalism, regardless of corporate, political or economic interests.




Read more:
Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence


Part of that is having the professional experience to understand what is involved, which includes absorbing the bullying that comes from powerful people and, where necessary, hitting back.

There has been no sign the ABC’s journalists have been getting that kind of protection, least of all from the board.

Instead, they are at the mercy of a vindictive government, urged on by its mates in News Corporation, which has a vested interest in weakening the ABC and shamelessly campaigns for exactly that.

The original version of this article contained a reference to an email concerning the coverage of marriage equality on the ABC. The author has subsequently learnt more about the origins and context of that email and acknowledges that the context as presented in the original article was wrong. That passage has been removed.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Suck it and see’ or face a digital tax, former ACCC boss Allan Fels warns Google and Facebook




Andrea Carson, La Trobe University and Andrew Dodd, University of Melbourne

Have you used Google lately and been greeted by a yellow warning saying that the way Australians search on Google is under threat?

To understand why these messages are appearing, Media Files interviewed former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Professor Allan Fels, and CEO of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI), Anna Draffin (full recording above, recorded from home due to the pandemic).




Read more:
Google’s ‘open letter’ is trying to scare Australians. The company simply doesn’t want to pay for news


This episode of Media Files is about world-first laws to be introduced later this year that will force Google and Facebook to pay for news on their sites to help fund public interest journalism.

The yellow warning messages by Google (which also appear on its sister site, YouTube) aim to garner public support for a campaign to pressure the federal government to dump revenue-sharing laws planned for later this year.

In a similar vein, Facebook’s Australian and New Zealand director of public policy, Mia Garlick, argued in the Sydney Morning Herald before the draft laws were released, that Facebook already provided top value to media outlets with

billions of opportunities for publishers to monetise their stories, gain new paying subscribers, serve ads, and keep Australians on their websites.

And while Allan Fels said he’s not surprised by the tech giants fighting back against the new law, the public will expect the tech giants to “suck it and see”.

“I think people will ask Google and Facebook to ‘suck it and see’ to see what turns out instead of just going home with a cricket bat or baseball bat,” said Fels.

“It’s normal, it’s par for the course, in ACCC matters, that parties make threats […] with jobs, investment, higher prices, leave the country. Everything!”.

Fels believes the Morrison government may well respond with a new digital tax if Google or Facebook pulls some business out of Australia, like it did in Spain in 2014. Then, the Spanish government charged Google copyright fees for using news snippets, so Google shut down its news service.

“Personally, I think that the government has got this huge stick in the closet if Google walks or partly walks, and that is to put on a digital tax,” Fels said, adding that

A digital tax is being talked about globally, mainly at the OECD. And virtually every member of the OECD wants to put a digital tax on the platforms except the US. Certainly the US under Donald Trump […] But even if the US continue to oppose it, I think a lot of countries are just going to proceed with their own digital tax.

How did we get here?

Following the ACCC digital platforms inquiry report last year, the consumer watchdog recommended the two tech giants pay Australia’s major newsrooms (excluding the SBS and ABC) an annual fee to use news on their sites.

Anna Draffin and the big media companies agree with the ACCC’s findings that media companies cannot fairly compete with the digital platforms to win advertising revenue, and that this revenue shortfall has led to masthead closures and journalism job cuts.

Draffin said its introduction is urgent as COVID-19 has accelerated the demise of many news outlets, particularly in regional Australia.

At first, the ACCC was to oversee a voluntary code with the technology companies negotiating in good faith with the big news outlets.

But, unhappy with the progress of the bargaining talks, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced in April the code would be mandatory. The government released draft laws in July sparking Google’s fear campaign warning its users that Australians “search experience will be hurt by new regulation”.

In an August 24 blog post, Google argues it helps “more than 20 million Australians” and is unlikely to shut down Australian news from its search engines.

A screen shot of a blog post from Google Australia.
Google Australia’s blog post said the firm helps ‘more than 20 million Australians and over one million businesses in Australia.’
Google

Facebook contends news is just a fraction of the information on its platform and the mandatory code is unnecessary.

ACCC chair Rod Sims, on the other hand, argues that

News content brings significant benefits to the digital platforms, far beyond the limited direct revenue generated from advertising shown against a news item […] News media businesses should be paid a fair amount in return for these benefits.“

The mandatory code includes transparency measures to force the digital platforms to share data and insights about how it uses algorithms to rank news content online.

Draffin said while the proposed laws are welcome, at this stage, they do not include the public broadcasters nor do they include smaller newsrooms with annual turnover under A$150,000.

“The code alone isn’t necessarily going to be the solution particularly for that [smaller] end of the market,” said Draffin.

“New market entrants would largely sit outside of any benefit from the code. So there could be room for a loan or venture capital fund for start-ups as a separate policy setting,” she said.




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The draft laws force the companies to negotiate for up to three months or face a binding binary dispute resolution where independent arbiters determine the winning bid among the bargaining parties. Breaches of the news laws would attract fines of up to $10 million or 10% of a company’s annual domestic turnover.

Public consultation into the draft mandatory bargaining code closes this Friday, August 28.


Additional credits

Theme music: Susie Wilkins.

Image

ShutterstockThe Conversation

Andrea Carson, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University and Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Killing the chicken to scare the monkey’: what Jimmy Lai’s arrest means for Hong Kong’s independent media



Kin Cheung/AP

Brendan Clift, University of Melbourne

The arrest this week of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong reveals the repressive reality of the city’s new made-in-China national security law.

It also sends a sharp signal to the remaining independent media in the territory: watch your step, or you could be next.

Lai, his two sons and four top executives of the Next Digital media group were all arrested under the new law. On the same day, police raided the offices of Next’s flagship publication, Apple Daily, deploying over 200 officers to search the premises for almost nine hours.

China imposed the national security law in June, bypassing the local legislature and breaching the principle of non-interference in the city’s governance.

The new law established a comprehensive PRC-style national security regime overriding aspects of Hong Kong’s common law legal system.

The national security law is designed to make dissent all but impossible in Hong Kong, including in the city’s once-freewheeling but gradually diminished independent media.

Jimmy Lai had been an outspoken critic of the government — and knew his arrest was likely.
VERNON YUEN/EPA

What the new law means for journalists

Lai and the others were arrested under article 29 of the new law, which criminalises collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security.

Banned acts include collaborating with a foreign entity to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or China, seriously disrupting the making of laws or policies, or provoking hatred of the government among Hong Kong residents.

Although Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is a grassroots, homegrown affair, Beijing has sought to portray it as the result of foreign meddling. Hong Kong’s last two leaders, Carrie Lam and CY Leung, both alleged foreign forces were behind the protests that took place during their terms.




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Beijing has already signalled that collusion will be broadly interpreted under the law.

Police have not disclosed the specifics of Lai’s offences, but his July meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to be under the microscope, as is an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times in May.

Lai’s status as an influential media owner and prominent pro-democracy activist has positioned him in Beijing’s crosshairs. He has been the target of extraordinary vitriol from mainland state media and was arrested by Hong Kong police in February and April on charges of participating in an illegal assembly.

Lai’s case is undoubtedly intended to serve as a warning — “killing the chicken to scare the monkey,“ to borrow a Chinese saying — and an inducement for the city’s journalists to self-censor, lest they fall foul of the new law.

For instance, an editorial calling for Hong Kong’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy to be preserved could be interpreted by a zealous prosecutor as inciting secession under articles 20 and 21 of the law.

Hong Kong’s protests have dwindled since the new security law came into place this year.
Vincent Yu/AP

An uncertain future for independent media

Although self-censorship has long been a concern, Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed a vibrant free press. In 2002, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 18th in its inaugural World Press Freedom Index.

However, by 2020, the city had plunged to 80th. (China, meanwhile, ranked 177th of 180 countries.) The application of the national security law in Hong Kong will no doubt see the territory’s ranking tumble even further.

Apple Daily’s days appear to be numbered. Similar fates could befall other outspoken independent media, like the crowd-funded Hong Kong Free Press, which launched in 2015 amid rising concerns over declining press freedoms in the city. This was around the same time the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s venerable English-language daily, was acquired by the mainland conglomerate Alibaba.




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Over the years, much of Hong Kong’s media has been bought up by China-owned or -affiliated entities, some of which are ultimately controlled Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. More than half of Hong Kong’s media owners are now members of political bodies on the mainland.

The public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has remained editorially independent, but it is under review again, having recently fallen foul of the local regulator for criticising the police handling of pro-democracy protests in a manner that was

irresponsible, and could be regarded as a hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against the police.

International media still operate in Hong Kong relatively unrestrained, but visa refusals for foreign journalists suggest this is changing.

In recent years, Financial Times editor Victor Mallet’s visa renewal was denied after he chaired a discussion with a pro-independence politician, and New York Times reporter Chris Buckley’s Hong Kong work permit was denied, without any specific reason, months after he was also kicked out of China.

The Times has moved some of its former China- and Hong Kong-based reporters to South Korea and Taiwan in response. However, foreign journalists who engage in critical reporting on China and Hong Kong could be in breach of the national security law regardless of where they are based, as the law applies extraterritorially and to non-Chinese citizens as well as nationals.

Blank Post-it sticky notes have been posted around Hong Kong to protest the breadth of the new national security law.
TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Speaking for the party’s will

China’s constitution purports to preserve freedom of expression. It has never met the promise of its terms. In 2016, President Xi Jinping told the country’s press,

all news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions and protect the party’s authority and unity.

The guarantees of free speech and a free press under Hong Kong’s Basic Law are now on the same trajectory.

It is unlikely the media in Hong Kong will be nationalised to the extent it is on the mainland. Instead, Beijing is deploying a combination of acquisition, co-optation and intimidation to obtain its compliant silence.The Conversation

Brendan Clift, Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How can we restore trust in media? Fewer biases and conflicts of interest, a new study shows



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Caroline Fisher, University of Canberra; Sora Park, University of Canberra, and Terry Flew, Queensland University of Technology

The COVID-19 global pandemic has seen news consumption rise in Australia. Audiences for TV news are up and Australians are spending more time on news websites seeking reliable information about the virus and the social and economic consequences of our policy responses.

This makes trust in the media more imperative than ever.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra have undertaken a survey of 1,045 Australians to gauge levels of trust and mistrust in news and what influences it.




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The most trusted voices in news

We found people trust the news they personally consume more than the news in general, and that trust in news was higher than trust in business or government, although lower than trust in friends and educational institutions.

Our participants deemed television the most credible source of information that provides good analysis of current events. Online news sources (including online only and mainstream media) were not viewed to be as credible or professional as traditional offline media.


Performance by media platform.
Flew, T., Dulleck, U., Park, S., Fisher, C. & Isler, O. (2020). Trust and Mistrust in Australian News Media. Brisbane: Digital Media Research Centre.

Some brands were more trusted than others. Trust in established news brands and public broadcasters was highest. Measured on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest, ABC TV (3.92) and radio (3.90) ranked highest, followed by SBS TV (3.87).

Among commercial media, the most trusted news brand was The Australian Financial Review (3.74), followed by The Age (3.69) and The Australian (3.69). More recently established brands had lower levels of trust, with Guardian Australia (3.45) being the most trusted.

Declaring conflicts of interest is important

To find out why people do or don’t trust the news, we asked them to rank a range of possible influences.

Factors that promoted mistrust in news included a past history of inaccurate stories, opinionated journalists or presenters, a lack of transparency, sensationalism and excessive advocacy on behalf of particular points of view.

Factors that promoted trust included depth of coverage, the reputation of the news brand, the reputation of particular journalists or presenters, and openness to comments and feedback from audiences.


Ways to improve trust in news from the perspective of news trusters and mistrusters.
Flew, T., Dulleck, U., Park, S., Fisher, C. & Isler, O. (2020). Trust and Mistrust in Australian News Media. Brisbane: Digital Media Research Centre

The single most significant measure that would restore trust in news brands was journalists declaring any conflicts of interest or biases with regards to particular stories. These measures were supported most by both trusters and mistrusters of news.

The negative impact of perceived bias and conflicts of interest appears consistently in studies about trust in news. News outlets need to take this seriously.




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Hiring more journalists and social media are not the answers

Our research also reveals some interesting contradictions in how to improve trust in the media.

On the one hand, there was a clear desire for more in-depth reporting. However, most respondents simultaneously showed less support for media outlets employing more journalists. This suggests audiences want better-quality journalism, but not necessarily more of it.




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In fact, employing more journalists and being more active on social media were deemed the least likely to increase public trust in media – two approaches that feature prominently in the business models of most news organisations.

As with institutional trust more generally, there is also a “trust divide” between educated elites and the wider population when it comes to the news media. Older people also have higher trust in news than younger people.

Trust in news is hard to restore

Importantly, our findings show that people who don’t trust the news are less supportive of ways to improve it. In contrast, people who do trust the news are more enthusiastic about options to boost it further.

In particular, mistrusters do not see employing more journalists or reporters using more social media as a way to boost trust. Doing either of those things would only increase the circulation of news they already mistrust.

This suggests it is harder to improve trust of those who are already sceptical and mistrustful of news. This is an important message for news outlets to take on board. Once lost, trust in news is harder to restore.The Conversation

Caroline Fisher, Assistant Professor in Journalism, University of Canberra; Sora Park, Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Arts & Design, University of Canberra, and Terry Flew, Professor, Digital Media Research Centre and Centre for Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Now more than ever, we need quality health reporting in Australia



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Andrea Carson, La Trobe University; Andrew Brett, University of Melbourne, and Timothy B. Gravelle, The University of Queensland

As the number of COVID-19 infections climbs across the globe, so too do stories about journalism job losses, newsroom cutbacks and masthead closures. This raises the question: what does the pandemic-induced economic crisis mean for public interest journalism?

Our latest research suggests quality health reporting in Australia – an important type of public interest journalism – was already under threat before the latest cutbacks, and before mis- and disinformation about the pandemic infected the internet.




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To stem the haemorrhage of public interest journalism, the Morrison government has announced a pandemic relief package for Australian media, including a A$50 million Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program. The government will support commercial television, newspaper and radio businesses that produce “quality news, particularly in remote and regional Australia”. Yet details about what constitutes public interest journalism and how it will be adequately supported remain sketchy.

Our study examined the quality of health reporting about cancer in Australia’s daily newspapers from 1997 to 2017. It found significant and increasing shortfalls in this type of public interest journalism.

While concerning, this finding was not surprising. Media companies have experienced significant financial duress in the digital age as technologies have transformed advertising markets and shifted revenues away from print to online competitors. This hardship for media outlets has led to newsroom cost-cutting and hundreds of masthead closures.

In terms of health reporting, it has meant fewer specialist medical reporters and experienced editors in newsrooms to sift through hype about miracle cures.

This is of concern for public knowledge about health issues. While newspapers have suffered significant cutbacks, their online reach and agenda-setting power mean they remain an important source of information for the public’s understanding of health care and disease. As many studies have found, news media play a key role in public health awareness and can influence how citizens use the healthcare system.

A prominent example of media effects on public health knowledge was the direct impact of an ABC television report in 2015 that was critical of a cholesterol-lowering drug. It resulted in 60,000 Australians changing their prescribed medication, often at serious risk to their health. The content was later removed, but the damage was done.

Our latest research investigated the quality of cancer reporting in two different years. These covered both a time of prosperity (1997) and a time of austerity (2017) for the Australian press.

More than 600 stories were sourced from tabloid and broadsheet-styled daily newspapers across Australia using keywords relating to cancer. We were specifically interested in cancer treatments and research.

We scored each story using a Media Quality Index (MQI), made up of eight measures. The eight measures were informed by past studies and tested the detail, accuracy and balance of reporting in the news stories and their headlines.

We found a statistically significant decline in the quality of reporting about cancer from 1997 to 2017 across the mainstream press. Tabloid articles received
significantly lower MQI scores than the broadsheet stories.

Of particular concern was the under-reporting of harms. We found stories published in 2017 were far less likely to discuss side effects or the potential for harm of cancer treatments compared to stories in 1997. In 1997, 60% of news stories about cancer treatments and research mentioned potential side effects. This compared with just 7% of stories published in 2017.




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This lack of critical health reporting about medical harms can limit the capacity of health consumers to make informed decisions about their illnesses and treatments. It can also inadvertently promote overuse of health services, with implications for the healthcare budget and public policy. Potentially, it can foster unrealistic expectations and undermine the public’s confidence in the medical profession if these expectations are not met.

We also found a significant rise in the use of sensational and emotive language in news reporting about cancer in 2017 (71%) compared to stories published in 1997 (34%).

This rise in emotive language and sensationalism is alarming because of the media’s potential to influence patient decision-making.

However, not all responsibility for sensationalism lies with media outlets. Researchers can stand to gain from favourable coverage of preliminary findings in terms of attracting venture capital. This underscores the need for specialist reporters who can detect questionable health claims in self-serving media releases.

In 2017, more headlines were guilty of clickbait – misleading readers to stoke attention and boost reader metrics to attract advertising dollars – compared to 1997. In 1997, 72% of headlines were considered accurate compared to 48% in 2017.

The initial misconception caused by a misleading headline is problematic because false impressions can be hard to correct. Again, they may raise a patient’s hopes and expectations regarding their cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Our study signals a broader warning about the quality of health reporting in the mainstream media. It shows the need for more public interest journalism to counter the abundance of health misinformation online.

To this end, the government’s PING program is a step in the right direction, but whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

This research project was led by Dr Nicholas Lawler, a medical resident at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.The Conversation

Andrea Carson, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University; Andrew Brett, Associate Professor (Clinical), University of Melbourne, and Timothy B. Gravelle, Senior Manager, Research and Data Insights, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How some Australian media are failing us on coronavirus



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Stan Grant, Charles Sturt University

On a recent episode of ABC’s Q&A, Commonwealth Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly tried to add some valuable context to the national outbreak of coronavirus. Australia’s testing is higher, he said, and the rates of infection lower than almost all other countries. In his words: we are not Italy. As he spoke, a tweet appeared on the screen saying the viewer felt calmer hearing information from experts.

Presenter Hamish Macdonald could not wait for Kelly to finish speaking before interrupting to ask him about earlier predictions that up to 60% of the population would contract COVID-19. He could have asked: why are our numbers so much lower? What is Australia doing better than other countries? Will our rates remain relatively low?

But, instinctively, Macdonald went for the more alarming question.

I hesitate to criticise Q&A because it has generally been outstanding in its coverage of the coronavirus, eschewing outrage and opinion for expertise. It is performing a valuable service. But it is not immune to journalism’s more troubling instincts.

Macdonald, an accomplished and informed journalist, was doing precisely what he has been trained to do. That is the problem.




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American political scientist W. Lance Bennett, in his study News: The Politics of Illusion, identified the “crisis cycle” of news coverage that employs drama as “a cheap, emotional device to focus on human conflict and travail”.

Bennett writes:

The media … has settled on a formula that is profitable, cheap, and easy to produce, but just not terribly helpful to the citizens who consume this news.

He quotes fellow scholars David Paletz and Robert Entman, who in their book Media Power Politics describe how journalists “graft” on drama; they “highlight or concoct conflict”.

This too often is the business model of journalism. I have spent two decades in 24/7 news, and it has changed the way we consume information. At its best, it connects the world, gives voice to the powerless and holds tyranny to account. At worst, it is confected drama, endless talking heads who feed on controversy and conflict.

As coverage of the coronavirus shows, each hour must be more alarming than the last. The language of fear is its stock in trade: catastrophe, nightmare, disaster, lockdown.

On one recent prime-time news bulletin, the deep cleaning of an infected nursing home was described as “like something out of a disaster movie”. Dreadful cliché aside, right now is real life not frightening enough?

A seasoned foreign correspondent referred to numbers of infections “soaring” in Spain. Why not simply that Spain recorded X number of new coronavirus cases? Because numbers “soaring” sounds more urgent, more alarming.

Such hyperbole lacks context and nuance. The second world war was “catastrophic”; the 2005 Asian tsunami was a “nightmare”; we can look back on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a “disaster”. Thankfully, the efforts of governments, health officials and the sacrifice of a responsible public means we are not there yet, and hopefully never will be. Journalists should spare their adjectives in case they really need them.

Think too of the ubiquitous use of wartime analogies. We are told we are in a “war” against the virus; governments are on a war footing; prime ministers and presidents are now wartime leaders. Yes, this is a terrible time. Lives are being lost. But we are in a battle, not in a war.




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In my 30-year journalism career I covered wars in several countries. Right now there are people homeless, their neighbourhoods bombed-out shells; there is no electricity, scant medical facilities, no schools, no work. Their governments do not pay them for wages lost. What they would give to be confined to their homes with running water, power, air conditioning, televisions, Netflix, internet. They count themselves lucky just to be alive.

News images, too, are used to provoke an emotional response. Stories about supermarkets invariably use footage of empty shelves. My local supermarket is well stocked and people behave with courtesy and calm. We are assured Australia has more than enough food, but images of empty shelves heighten the sense of siege.

As this crisis has been a stress test of our politics, economy, health systems and society, so too is it a stress test of our media. Healthy journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. A free and open media in China could have stopped the Chinese Communist Party from covering up the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan last year. This worldwide pandemic might have been averted.

There is much excellent work being done in newsrooms stretched to capacity. But journalism culture carries its own virus: anxiety.

Now more then ever, the media should inform, not inflame. Less crisis and more context. Resist the worst instincts. The public needs no reminding this is serious.

People are afraid and not just of the virus: businesses will be lost, relationships broken, and mental health will suffer. Psychologists already warn of the potential for increased suicide. We don’t need media-generated anxiety.

As the tweet on Q&A read, we are calmer when we hear from experts. We need the news: we need it rigorous and unembellished. We do not need the illusion of news.The Conversation

Stan Grant, Vice Chancellors Chair Australian/Indigenous Belonging, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.