Damian Eales: Tame the Big Tech duopoly to ensure real news survives

The digital duopoly's dereliction contradicts their hype, namely that they're a force for good.

Google claims to generate billions of leads to news sites, raising the question of why so many are going bust. Facebook is the company that bans news outlets or, in Facebook-speak, imposes 'algorithmic penalties' because of arbitrary breaches of its morality code. Yet the very next month it live-streams mass murder.

Neither pays for the journalism that has helped make them rich. Not even as they put the torch to the business model - advertising - that has sustained journalism for centuries.

As Big Tech's unfettered power grows in the 21st century, the imbalance in bargaining power with news media is widening.

The pending closure of AAP, Australia's 85-year-old news wire, and the demise of revered US news publisher McClatchy are yet further demonstrations of the harm done to news media around the world. Now, in the era of COVID-19, the metaphoric viral threat Big Tech poses has become biological reality.

The Sunraysia Daily in Mildura, which has served its community for 100 years, was the first to succumb. Others, in Victoria's Gippsland - an area still reeling from summer's devastating bushfires and in more need of local media than ever - have followed. They won't be the last. Countless communities will be bereft of news and information they can trust. The stories that matter most to them will not be told. This is not only a bad outcome for the business of news media but also for society at large.

It is axiomatic that the news media's role as watchdog is an essential ingredient in any democracy. Regulators are recognising it, in the same way they recognised that the growth of cars meant traffic lights and seatbelts were necessary to protect the population. In the same way they recognised the cost of competition on the consumer from the likes of Standard Oil and the Bell System of companies. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission is hitting back at the digital platforms. So too are regulators across the US and Europe.

The urgency is unequivocal. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the lives of every man, woman and child on the planet, never has the news media had a more purposeful role. And yet never has its existence been more precarious. The fallout of a corona-induced economic collapse is beyond considerable and will extend and expand the news drought that has already struck communities in the US and throughout the world. As we know already, Australia won't be immune.

Yet despite the egregiousness of the digital duopoly and the catastrophe of the coronavirus, news media is not broken. In fact, our audiences have never been so large. The fact is we're a resolute and resilient lot, intent on finding new ways to fund journalism.

Turning back to Big Tech, it turns out fake news on social media and search engines has been a friend to real news. It has helped give trustworthy news a competitive advantage. Unsurprising, really, when you consider that media is accountable to regulators, to advertisers and, most important, to its communities.

Building on trust, the art of journalism is now enabled by data science. Data has enabled editors and journalists to better understand what audiences truly value. News instincts and data science have combined to reveal what stories to cover, how to cover them, when to run them and how to market them. Local is the hero, and has helped a resurgence in local digital community news. Local is lucrative because the content is scarce, valuable and trusted. And so long as it is paid for, it is profitable. Since September 2018, News Corp Australia has launched 16 new digital-only community mastheads in areas where we never had a print presence. At the same time, we have converted many print titles to digital-only titles. More will follow. It reflects changing audience demographics and how news and information are consumed.

This means local journalism can help underpin new growth and a firm financial future. That's because it drives subscriptions - the funding model that publishers the world over are looking to as the replacement for advertising. This is a model that works if facilitated, not frustrated, by the likes of Facebook and Google. Yet the collapse of advertising revenue means local newspapers, the traditional delivery mechanism for local news, are in grave peril. This, at the very moment our thirst for local news grows. The news media industry is in a race against time. COVID-19 will hasten the reshaping of news media that began with Big Tech.

Now is the time for governments and regulators to act. If Big Tech can be tamed, the sustainability of journalism in our communities might be assured again. But, for many, time has run out for plan B. And if there's no media to challenge Big Tech's falsities, who will benefit from its triumph?

• Damian Eales is president of the International News Media Association and chief operating officer of publishing at News Corp Australia. This article first appeared in The Australian.

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