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Pattern Matching

There’s a Smarter Way to Make Tech Pay for News

How to bolster the media without breaking the internet

Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

A proposed law intended to bolster the struggling news media at the expense of thriving tech platforms is playing out quite poorly in Australia.

Google reluctantly obeyed the legislation, which is expected to pass in the next week, by agreeing to pay large sums to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and other corporate media giants in exchange for linking to their articles. (News Corp is the dominant player in Australia’s heavily concentrated media market.) Facebook refused, opting instead to ban all news from its network in Australia. In the process, Facebook appears to have also blocked posts from public health agencies, weather sites, political candidates, and nonprofits helping victims of domestic violence, among others. It even briefly took out some of its own pages. The company says it is working to restore non-news content.

It’s hard to say whether Facebook’s approach is worse, but it’s easy to see that the proposed law — which would require the dominant internet platforms to negotiate with all news organizations above a certain revenue threshold for the right to host links to their content — is deeply flawed, even for those who sympathize with its motivations. (I wrote about those motivations last year, and covered the immediate fallout from Facebook’s response earlier this week.)

It might also be easy to forget, amid the debacle and recriminations, that the status quo is disastrous as well. In the United States, as in Australia and many other countries, the internet broke the business model that had long sustained public-interest journalism — especially local journalism — and with relatively few exceptions, the news industry has been more or less in freefall for the past 15 years. It’s hard to measure the full societal cost of that crash, but looking around at the state of our democracy, public discourse, and public trust in the media and institutions should offer some clues.

It’s natural to fight about whose fault that is, and to look for heroes and villains. Australia’s law seems informed by that sort of frame: It views platforms such as Facebook and Google as profiting unjustly from the media’s work, and seeks to remedy that. There are many in Silicon Valley who take an opposite view: that the media are to blame for failing to adapt, and that they deserve to die and be replaced by ventures better-suited to the digital age.

More productive, however, is to try to find some consensus on exactly what sorts of public goods have been lost by the news industry’s contraction, and what sort of regulatory interventions — if any — might address them more effectively than the unregulated market has been able to.

The Pattern

There are better ways to bolster the media without breaking the internet.

One of the most persuasive critiques of Australia’s approach comes from Harold Feld of the nonprofit Public Knowledge. Writing on Feb. 9 — before Google signed its deal with News Corp or Facebook announced its news ban — Feld argued that Big Tech’s harms to news are real, but that Australia (and France, which has pursued similar policies) risked making things worse by misconstruing the nature of the problem. He also anticipated Facebook’s response. From Feld’s post:

In an effort to ensure the continued production of news — an important public interest goal — France and Australia have created a structure that will both preserve the existing market power of dominant platforms and the market position of the largest news publishers by requiring negotiations between the two. Worse, by framing this as a negotiation to prevent unjust enrichment, the Australian and French regimes threaten to bring news blackouts to the internet similar to the blackouts of television programming on cable and satellite services when similar “retransmission consent” negotiations fail.

So what’s the alternative? One idea that has been gaining traction involves requiring the largest internet platforms to pay into a fund that would then subsidize journalism in some form. The goal is not to punish the platforms, or to level the playing field between platforms and the corporate media, but to address the decline of journalism through direct subsidies. Often, these proposals try to avoid propping up existing, for-profit media businesses and focus instead on trying to ensure the survival of public-interest journalism, specifically — a category that includes original reporting on public issues, while excluding, say, advice columns or the sports page. It’s the kind of content that tends to be both the least profitable and most essential to an informed electorate.

The obvious questions include on what basis to tax the platforms, who should oversee the resulting funds, exactly what types of journalism they should subsidize, and how to decide who gets those subsidies. Giving the government too much direct control over those decisions risks compromising the press’s independence: Without strong safeguards, it’s easy to envision a government led by a party or administration with authoritarian tendencies, such as Donald Trump’s United States or Narendra Modi’s India, pulling funding from any outlet that crosses them. (To be fair, right-leaning outlets would surely have some of the same fears under the Biden administration, whether well-founded or not.)

These are extremely difficult questions. Fortunately, they are also questions that smart people have been thinking about for years — especially in the European Union, where the political climate allows for more government intervention in the media. A 2019 report from the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford proposed three pillars for successful digital media policy interventions: preserving press freedom, providing funding for public-interest journalism, and focusing on the long-term future — that is, allowing space for new models to flourish rather than just preserving the old ones. Those seem reasonable, although it’s hard to craft policies that don’t compromise on at least one of those principles. In Canada, a government program to support local news outlets has been criticized by some for prioritizing old media.

In the United States, the nonprofit Free Press has proposed a tax on targeted advertising, with funds going to reinvigorate and reinvent public media. Some states have taken up at least a portion of that idea: Maryland is eyeing a tax on online advertising, but with funds going to education rather than media. (The tech lobby is suing to block it.) Taking a global view, the University of Pennsylvania’s Victor Pickard made the case in 2019 for a “global, independent public media fund,” paid for by taxing platforms.

Public Knowledge has its own proposal — one that seeks to avoid making media beholden to the government. It calls its idea a “Superfund for the Internet,” a reference to the EPA program that pays to clean up toxic waste sites. Among other features, the proposal calls for platforms to pay into a trust fund, which would in turn pay for news organizations to establish robust fact-checking services. While Facebook has voluntarily set up fact-checking partnerships at the national level, Public Knowledge envisions fact-checking on a much grander scale, with local outlets in every city and town using the subsidies to pay professional journalists to fight misinformation on social networks.

Appealing as that is, there is more to journalism than fact-checking — and misinformation is just one of the symptoms of our current information dysfunction. In a phone interview, Feld acknowledged that fact-checking won’t solve everything: Radicals and hardcore conspiracy theorists will dismiss fact-checks that contradict their views. (And fact-checks are no substitute for beat reporting, investigations, or feature stories that shed light on important societal issues.) But he said it would at least offer a new, sustainable revenue stream for local news outlets — and give them an essential role to play in their communities’ digital ecosystem, even if they can’t stop readers and advertisers from migrating to Facebook and other social platforms.

The most compelling criticism of these schemes is that they serve to further enshrine platforms’ dominance by making the media reliant on them for funding. Drawing on ideas articulated by Cory Doctorow in his book How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, which was published on OneZero last year, Paris Marx argued in the magazine Tribune last year that the first step to saving journalism is to break up the platforms. I’m not optimistic that antitrust alone will revive a news industry whose business model is ill-suited to the internet age; Marx acknowledges this and nods to the need for public media funding as well. (Maybe he and Feld aren’t so far off after all.)

As Australia grapples with the fallout from legislation pushed by News Corp and other corporate media giants, it would be a mistake for other countries to give up on the idea of redistribution from platforms to journalism altogether. Instead, they should look to ideas from experts outside the media industry who are wedded not to the success of existing news organizations, but to the future of public-interest journalism in particular — and who understand the importance of freedom to both the press and the ordinary internet user.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time.

  • Following Facebook’s news ban, the public Australian Broadcasting Company’s news app hit number one in the App Store on Friday, as Platformer’s Casey Newton noted on Twitter. That might offer some hope to those who see Facebook’s retreat from news as an opportunity for users to change their habits and start visiting news sites directly. Encouraging as it is, however, I’m skeptical that the surge of interest portends a long-term shift of users away from Facebook and toward news-focused apps and websites. Most people only have so much bandwidth for seeking out news, and it’s hard to envision ABC News outcompeting Facebook for their limited attention.
  • Google will adjust some of its diversity and personnel policies after concluding an internal review of how it controversially ousted noted A.I. researcher Timnit Gebru in December, Axios’ Ina Fried reported. A frustrated Gebru noted in response that the company avoided “holding anyone accountable for their actions.”

Headlines of the Week

U.S. Airports No Longer Have to Build Their Own Terrible Trains

— Aaron Gordon, Motherboard

Big Tech’s Next Big Problem Could Come From People Like ‘Mr. Sweepy’

— David McCabe, New York Times

Slate Star Clusterfuck

— Elizabeth Spiers, Substack

Thanks for reading Pattern Matching. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at oremus@medium.com.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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