The Facebook whistleblower revelations are rightly getting all sorts of attention lately.
But a report on Google’s problematic news grants, released at the same time by a British trade publication, should not be overlooked.
The report by Press Gazette pulled back the curtain on Google’s ballyhooed $1 billion News Showcase program, announced last October to help a news industry that it’s skimming from and suffocating at the same time.
More than 1,000 news outlets in 15 countries were touched by the program and bound by strict confidentiality clauses, the report said, but it found more than a dozen senior publishing industry sources willing to spill the beans.
These insights are of public interest as the U.S. Congress and legislators in other countries consider ways to address unfair competition by tech giants. That includes Google and Facebook profiting from news content without adequately compensating publishers who paid for the journalism.
Google also extracts an inordinate share of digital advertising dollars because of its dominant position in the stack of services used in that marketplace, according to a House Judiciary Committee investigation.
In context, Google spending $1 billion over three years in 15 countries is peanuts. The company makes far more from publisher news content every year, according to a study by the News Media Alliance. It estimated Google received $4.7 billion in revenue just in 2018 from crawling and scraping for news content without paying for its use.
Google may have some good intentions. It needs news organizations to survive so there’s credible news to be found on its sites (and so democracies, and the free flow of information they enable, don’t fail). But it’s clearly trying to avoid having to pay more and closer to the value of what it’s taking from publishers.
The company announced News Showcase as government proposals were gathering steam in the U.S., Australia and the European Union to force Google and Facebook to start paying for news content, by negotiating payment arrangements with publishers.
The Sept. 30 Press Gazette report, by its Vancouver, B.C.-based editor William Turvill, shows why such policies, particularly the Australian model that forces Google and Facebook to pay or face arbitration, are still needed despite dollars voluntarily sprinkled on the news industry.
One of the sources estimated Google is spending three times more on news deals in Australia than in the United Kingdom, even though the U.K. is a far larger market. Take note, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and other sponsors of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act.
The report suggests News Showcase payments are haphazard, and secrecy makes it impossible to compare and assess its effectiveness.
“They make it up as they go along,” a local-news publisher in England told the Post Gazette. “They pay you whatever they think they can get away with. There is no proportionality, and that is going to lead to a great deal of unhappiness.”
Indeed, British publishing sources told the Post Gazette that many took Google payments because they were desperate. One said that “most are unhappy” with the deals.
It also quoted testimony that Matt Rogerson, director of public policy at Guardian Media Group, gave to Parliament in March. He said payments now coming from Google to publishers in Australia “are meaningful and significantly higher than the payments that they would otherwise make in the U.K., where there is not a mandatory code in place.”
News Showcase was supposed to launch in the U.S. this quarter but was delayed until next year, the report said, and added Google’s comment that the program is “on course” and the company is speaking to “a number of publishers in the U.S.”
Meanwhile newspapers in the U.S. continue to struggle and collapse. More than 90 local newsrooms closed or merged during the pandemic, according a new tally this week by the Poynter Institute.
The pace of closures accelerated after a brutal decade, when 57% percent of newspaper newsroom jobs were lost between 2008 and 2020, just in the U.S.
The bottom line is that if America wants to save its local free press system, it must have strong policy requiring tech giants to fairly and permanently pay for news content from which they profit.