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Journalism: digital giants paying for content is good news, but will it support local press?

A pile of newspapers with The Shetland Times on top.
Local stories often find their way into national papers. Andrew J Shearer via Shutterstock

That the internet has all but destroyed the business model that has always supported journalism is not news. But what has made the news around the world recently is that the Australian government has attempted to do something about it.

It has passed a new law forcing organisations such as Facebook and Google, which make a great deal of money out of carrying news material on their platforms, to share their advertising revenue with media organisations.

Facebook incurred a worldwide backlash by temporarily blocking all news sites for users in Australia. Google, meanwhile, took the opposite tack by signing early agreements with the country’s key media players. Facebook has now also pledged to strike deals with Australia’s leading news companies in return for allowing its users to post their content on its pages.

But if the purpose of the new law is to serve democracy by supporting public interest journalism, how well will it work?

The wholesale movement of revenue from media outlets employing professional journalists to content platforms which produce no original stories is a major international problem. Social media doesn’t just reduce funding for professional journalism, it also enables the spread of fake news that rapidly fills the gap left behind. It’s a problem that has been obscured by social media’s many other issues: bullying, use by criminal groups, and disturbing, exploitative, violent and pornographic content. But in fact, how advertising income breaks down has much deeper implications.

Digital advertising spend is continuously increasing, but about 40% goes to Google, with Facebook in second place at about 22% and closing the gap. Meanwhile, local newspapers have watched as their property advertising has disappeared to Rightmove and their classified ads to Ebay and Facebook. As for job ads, which were such good moneyspinners for local and national newspapers, they have migrated mainly to CV upload sites, such as LinkedIn.

To maintain visibility in the new digital world, news organisations have to be present on social media platforms – which simply means more eyeballs for the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Deprived of advertising revenue, traditional news organisations are in seemingly unstoppable decline – not just in the UK, but around the world. In the UK, 265 titles have closed since 2005 – with COVID-19 proving the final nail in the coffin for some.

The Australian initiative attempts to mitigate against tech giants siphoning off all digital revenue – but a major and valid criticism is that the deal appears to be skewed in favour of large media organisations. Funds also need to be made available to support independent local news organisations. The imbalance is already visible.

Google preempted the new law by reaching agreements to pay seven Australian media organisations, including Rupert Murdoch’s considerable newspaper and TV empire. But there’s concern that the grassroots organisations that provide most public service news are unlikely to benefit without the massive influence of the nationals.

Google has also agreed to pay for use of news snippets in Google News search results from some publishers in France – but so far only to a handful of major national organisations as well as the international news agency Reuters. Again, the agreement looks set to benefit the biggest players the most, since one of the criteria is monthly traffic. Reuters’ French rival AFP has already complained.

Blackout on local news

Why does this matter? Research has shown clear links between a loss of journalism – particularly at local level – and a loss of public participation and trust in democracy. The watchdog role of the local press drives up standards in many other unexpected ways.

In the US, congressmen in areas not covered by a local newspaper do less to represent their communities in the absence of local watchdogs – they are more likely to toe the party to line than rebel, and do less constituency work, while their areas get less federal funding. Where local newsrooms have had severe staff cuts, there’s also less competition in mayoral elections.

There’s evidence from Norway and Japan that councils in areas with high local paper circulations are more efficient. The decline of local newspapers and reduced coverage of local politics has even been blamed for political polarisation, particularly in poorer areas.

And it’s not just about politics. The Index on Censorship has reported on the problems of reduced local newsrooms trying to report accurately while public bodies, including health and education trusts, employ highly paid marketing teams to protect their image; and local social media groups share information that often turns out to be false.

A newsagent surrounded by magazines and local papers.
Local news is the lifeblood of its community. Anton Havelaar via Shutterstock

Fewer local journalists means less coverage of court cases and inquests. In my own research into coverage of coroners’ courts, we found evidence of “news deserts”: areas where inquests were never reported due to staff cuts and patchy information from courts. Editors told me it was increasingly difficult to contact the police directly, as contacts were funnelled through police “newsrooms” – previously press offices – which now aim to prioritise good news stories about police successes.

This has serious consequences. The importance of the reporting of public inquests has been highlighted by the work of George Julian, who live-tweets inquests of people with learning difficulties and autism. They typically die two decades earlier than people without these special needs, often because of poorly managed care which is only highlighted during the inquest process. But if there is no-one there to cover the inquest, there is little public pressure for change.

Local journalism costs money too

The moves by the Australian government are a step in the right direction but there is a risk that the negotiating system will let the big players grab the newly released revenue, leaving high-quality, professional local journalism high and dry again.

This is actually in nobody’s interests. National news organisations have long relied on the local press to act as a grassroots army of reporters. Many national stories began as a local paper’s front page, and many great reporters started out on the local press. Self-interest actually should dictate that they use their power to help their smaller colleagues, but it seems likely that, without a keen oversight by the reviewing body a year from now, short-termism will ensure they continue to carve out the biggest slice of the pie.

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