What we can learn from the Facebook-Australia news debacle

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Democracies around the world are all mired in one crisis or another, which is why measures of their health are trending in the wrong direction. Many look at the decline of the news industry as one contributing factor. No wonder, then, that figuring out how to pay for journalism is an urgent issue, and some governments are pushing ahead with ambitious plans. Big ideas for ways to funnel billions of dollars back into newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to take a gamble on more than one. 

Such an idea rose to the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would compel search and social media platforms to pay news organizations for linking to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is doing deals with major companies such as News Corp, Nine, and Seven West Media. But Facebook took the other route—rather than pay for news to appear on its platform, the social media giant blocked Australian users from accessing and sharing news entirely. 

Reactions have been swift. Some commentators pounced on Facebook’s actions as proof of its monopolistic intent and lack of concern for civic discourse. Others blame the Australian government for bowing to the protectionist interests of media cronies such as Rupert Murdoch, and putting tech companies in an absurd position. 

What else can be done to push billions of dollars back into journalism?

Australia’s approach is now being considered by lawmakers and regulators in multiple other governments. Reuters reports that Canadian heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada will model its own legislation on the Australian law. There are also some similarities in a bill proposed by US congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island that would “provide a temporary safe harbor for the publishers of online content to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which their content may be distributed.” 

In general, these measures seek to boost the bargaining power of news organizations and help them extract value from tech giants for the content that newsrooms produce. The Australian model’s novelty lies in its arbitration mechanism, a kind of membrane between the parties intended to help them arrive at a fair exchange of value.

The Australian law will likely pass, so this grand experiment in pushing capital back to the news media will soon be under way. We’ll get to see how it works out, and whether opponents’ concerns bear out—if larger news organizations are privileged over small ones, for instance, or whether the money actually ends up being spent on producing more journalism. 

But in view of the objections to this approach, what other options exist? If new subscription models are not enough to sustain the media industry, what else can be done to push billions of dollars back into journalism?



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