Let’s Save Journalism By Getting Tech Giants to Pony Up
Recent events in Washington have shown again that quality information and evidence-based reporting is essential for democracy to function. News consumption has risen globally during the pandemic but when COVID-19 emerged early last year, journalism was already in a dire state financially. The loss of advertising revenue and job cuts resulting from the pandemic exacerbated the problem, with some predicting the pandemic would turn out to be a “media extinction event.”
The good news is that dozens of plans have emerged worldwide to reverse the financial destruction. At Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, our new report, “Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-Covid World,” examines initiatives from around the world and evaluates where they currently stand.
In 2020, foundations, companies, journalism organizations, and governments stepped in with emergency funding that helped both media outlets and freelance journalists to survive. Norway, Singapore, Australia, Canada, France, and other countries all expanded government support for quality news as part of larger COVID-19 relief efforts. But increasingly, there is an understanding that large scale solutions are needed if journalism is to survive long term. Small grants provide emergency support but are not enough to make journalism sustainable. Structural reforms are needed.
Of the many efforts we looked at, one from Australia is especially promising; there the aim is to level the playing field and correct the power imbalance that currently exists between the tech giants and news organizations by forcing Google and Facebook to negotiate more fairly with publishers about what sums the tech companies pay for news they use. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (AACC), headed by economist Rod Sims, has drafted a code that, if approved by parliament, will require Google and Facebook to pay for the news they carry, with prices to be set by arbitration if the two sides cannot agree on terms.
Other governments are watching developments to see whether this is something they can emulate. Regulators and organizations in Africa have already been looking for ways to adapt and implement Australia’s proposed code within their own countries. The European Union and the United States, similarly, are monitoring events as they consider how to regulate the tech giants.
In the meantime, the debate in Australia on whether the new code will be effective has been heating up. Facebook and Google have released a series of statements condemning the proposal as unfair and “totally unworkable.” At this writing, however, observers expect the amended code to be approved by the Australian Parliament by the end of March.
Desperate times call for bold solutions, and in the U.S., several laws and proposals to support local journalism have been put forward. If the Biden administration decides to support quality information in the U.S., it should take a close look at Australia.
Anya Schiffrin is the director of Technology, Media, and Advocacy specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her students Léa Allirajah, Hannah Clifford, Allynn McInerney, and Kylie Tumiatti contributed to the "Saving Journalism" report, which was commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.