NEW YORK — Who would have guessed Australia would show the U.S. and Canada how to save their news industries and democracy?

This gift from Down Under keeps giving, including a remarkable batch of advice given at the Saving Journalism conference at Columbia University on Oct. 21.

Speakers included Emma McDonald, a former media lawyer who negotiated content deals with Google and Facebook for a group of 24 publishers, after Australia passed its pioneering News Media Bargaining Code last year.

Also sharing tales and tips for getting Big Tech to pay for news was Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator representing South Australia.

They described how Australia’s code is working to preserve and grow journalism jobs, particularly at smaller and rural outlets.

The policy requires Google and Facebook to negotiate in good faith with outlets or face a strict regulatory designation, subjecting them to binding arbitration.

Advertising

Congress passing similar policy may be the best hope for preventing another wave of downsizing in the U.S. newspaper industry, which already lost 70% of its employees since the last big recession.

As I’ve written before, there’s bipartisan support for this approach, proposed as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. But Congress needs to get it done this year, before its composition changes.

McDonald and Hanson-Young made the case that this is necessary to get Google and Facebook to engage meaningfully with smaller outlets.

They advise legislators not to let perfect be the enemy of the good, or be overly prescriptive, since outlets have different needs for this revenue. Policies can also be assessed and potentially adjusted later, as Australia is doing now.

What’s most needed is to get negotiations started before it’s too late for news outlets on the brink of failure.

Here are excerpts from their presentation, hosted by Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs technology, media and communications program.

Advertising

On getting it done: “In my mind, from a progressive perspective, finally there was an opportunity to regulate Big Tech,” Hanson-Young said.

“It took a lot of negotiation but it was pragmatic politics in the end that pushed it through. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There were compromises made. But we are now at a point where the bulk of the main media organizations in the country are covered, they have deals with Facebook and Google.”

Google vs. Facebook: “The list of deals that have been made between media agencies and Google is much longer than the list with Facebook and I think that is representing how Facebook has behaved the whole way through,” Hanson-Young said. “They’ve decided to be the difficult ones in the negotiations and it wasn’t hard, I think, for Google to end up looking like the relatively reasonable player in comparison but it wasn’t always like that — the threat of designation is really what forced Google to the table. They spent a lot of money, they tried very hard to stop this.”

Value of collective bargaining: “After the proposal was introduced, or even just before the code was introduced, News Corp. and big media players did deals very quickly with both Google and Facebook. But for about six months after that, none of the small publishers could get Google and Facebook to even talk to them, and so it was obvious we needed to get together as a group,” said McDonald, a policy adviser at The Minderoo Foundation.

Beware of the grant alternative: “Facebook had set up a fund in Australia, like a grant program … they just said to my publishers, ‘You can just go and apply for a grant,’ ” McDonald said. “Hilariously, the day they emailed me that … was the day before the grant program closed for another 12 months. I wrote back to Facebook and said, ‘What you’re basically telling me is that my guys now have to wait 366 days before they can even apply for a grant they won’t get or even be eligible to get until March 2023?’ and they answered us ‘yes.’ So they were very unhelpful and that was basically the start of discussions with Facebook.”

Persist: “With Google, they tried to pick off my publishers and weren’t prepared to accept that all 24 of my group deserved money and I just simply wouldn’t accept that,” McDonald said. “So I persisted for six months and at the end of that time all 24 got funding from Google.”

Advertising

Success: “The good news is that it has done a lot to support those publishers who have been delivering important news in regional, remote, out-of-urban, LGBTQIA communities, foreign language press … it’s a really great story for those guys,” McDonald said. “They’ve been able to either invest in new products or technology for their organizations, they’ve been able to hire journalists and I got a deal that’s long enough … for them to feel comfortable for a good period of time.”

How much?: “It is in the vicinity of a quarter-billion dollars that is being injected into Australia’s journalism business when you put it all together,” Hanson-Young said. “It has resulted in hundreds of journalists being employed in Australia. In this context, over the last 18 months, nowhere else was that money coming from. … The money from the Big Tech companies has flowed directly to where we said it would.”

“I agree with you lots of journalism jobs have been created,” McDonald added. “But equally, lots of journalism jobs have been saved.”

Not just for big players: “It would be wrong to argue that … this was all (News Corp. founder Rupert) Murdoch or a handful of the big players and that’s why they wanted it,” Hanson-Young said. “Because of the mechanisms in the bill, we actually have seen money flow across the board. If we didn’t get that money in, for example, I don’t think The Guardian in Australia would be sustainable right now. Many of the smaller players that Emma’s worked with just were about to go to the wall. So we’ve actually retained and saved media diversity through this.”

Necessary, but there’s no single solution: “It’s the start of solving the problems. We need to remember that,” McDonald said. “It was about addressing a bargaining imbalance between digital platforms and news media businesses, which the competition regulator described as ‘unavoidable trade partners.’ They needed each other but publishers could not get the platforms to see the value they were bringing to their services. … This is the start of a long conversation but we’ve got to start somewhere and we did.”