Australia’s News Bargaining Code Did Little to “Save” Journalism

Australia’s News Bargaining Code was supposed to “save” journalism. There’s a growing body of evidence to say it did no such thing.

According to Bill C-18 supporters, Australia’s News Bargaining Code “saved” journalism. It was supposed to bring in new revenue streams to journalism outlets of all shapes and sizes. As a result, hiring was off the charts and the difference the code made to the sector was like night and day. In fact, thanks to the Australian News Bargaining Code, Australia is now this mecca for journalism and that it provides this shining example of what to do to save journalism from the evil tyranny of platforms permitting links to those outlets, mercilessly sending them free traffic all day, every day.

All of this is, of course, is fantastic news, but someone may need to tell the Australian news sector this. After all, had it not been for Canadian news outlets pushing this narrative, Australian news outlets would never have otherwise known that they are in a new era of journalism boasting of prosperity for all. We got a taste of this when we found out that the waves of layoffs never really stopped in Australia. Last month, we reported on News Corp Australia slashing 1,250 jobs, or about 1 in 20 employees in the workforce.

You’d think that with all the money flowing into the media outlets bank accounts that this wouldn’t happen – especially since all those millions were supposed to create journalism positions. Yet, here we are today with a scenario very similar to the one before the Code was implemented. So, why did the Australian News Bargaining Code fail to achieve its goals? Well, it seems that there are a variety of reasons for that – many of which has to do with the Code itself. From American Affairs:

Instead, Google and Facebook each cut side deals with publishers—the details of which are not public, as there are nondisclosure agreements barring further review. Wrote Bill Grueskin, Columbia University journalism professor and a journalist in residence at the time at the Australia-based Judith Neilsen Institute:

If you want to learn whether those newsrooms are spending that money to bolster journalism, rather than pad executives’ salaries, you’re also out of luck. I’ve been talking to newsroom managers most of my adult life, and I’ve never seen a group so reticent to share details of anything related to their business.

So we have a precedent set in one nation of 25 million residents, the first time governments have interceded to mandate platforms pay news organizations. And no evidence that the dollars that flowed actually meant more journalism. Grueskin pegged the influx of cash at $200 million, not an inconsiderable sum.

So, in all likelihood, the money never really went to create jobs in the journalism sector. Of course, Bill C-18 supporters insist that the smaller players were also greatly helped out by the Code. Well, as it turns out, that didn’t really happen:

And what about the smallest publishers, those who might reach to qualify for this code? I asked Claire Stuchbery, executive director of Australia’s Local Independent News Association, what her membership is seeing. Stuchbery responded that most of that group’s members do not qualify or benefit at all—not least because of the lengthy and expensive process needed to navigate the Code:

What we have learned through the review process is that publishers had to find funding partners to engage legal support to enter the bargaining process. The process then took around 18 months, followed by a rigorous process of negotiating commitments (e.g. number of stories published each week, topics covered, target audience groups), with some publishers only receiving their first payments in the last month. While amounts have been set, delivery models and expectations must be re-negotiated annually over a five-year deal. These deals have only been forthcoming from Google to date, with no engagement from Meta.

Registration as a public interest news outlet has been patchy. For example, one publisher has three mastheads, two of which were considered eligible and one was not, despite operating on the same model as the other two in the same publishing house. And, being registered does not automatically mean the masthead will be accepted by Google or Facebook, who apply their own considerations to who is or is not eligible for a deal. In this way, the Mandatory Bargaining Code only gets publishers part-way to a deal with the big tech companies.

Beyond those few publications who have successfully negotiated a deal, there are many who have found the whole process too cumbersome to manage, have not had the capacity to engage with it and/or don’t meet the financial eligibility requirements. The Code requires newsrooms to have an annual turnover of $150k+ to be eligible, a barrier to new entrants and small publishers. LINA suggests a non-financial measure alongside this requirement would allow for smaller public interest news publishers to participate in the Code. Eg. $150k turnover and/or producing an average of 6+ local news stories per week (or similar). A barrier to entry is reasonable to ensure focus on quality news content, but a content measure would also be appropriate to demonstrate alignment with the codes’ purpose.

To date, no community radio news service has received funding through the Code and only 3 LINA members have been able to engage with the process, noting this occurred through the Public Interest News Alliance prior to the establishment of LINA.

The overall impression of the Code’s implementation has been that it has significantly favoured large, mainstream media outlets, some of whom have closed down since receiving the money, (and) will have limited impact or benefit to small, independent newsrooms.

This should represent a major warning flag for any small outlet in Canada. As we pointed out in our analysis, there are significant barriers to entry for smaller outlets within Bill C-18. If you focus on “a particular topic” or don’t have enough of the right staff, you’ll be out of luck from the get go. Additionally, the outlets will have to band together as a small cartel and work out how to approach Google and Facebook just to make it to the negotiating table. That is already a process that is likely cumbersome and designed to keep smaller players out who are already struggling to keep the lights on. If anything, the Australian experience for smaller players will likely happen in Canada.

The overwhelming conclusion is that the Australian News Bargaining Code did little to achieve its objectives. Did it create a plethora of new jobs? Not really. Did it stem the tide of layoffs within the sector? Hardly. Did it help the smaller independent outlets? That’s laughable, but seriously, it apparently did not. Did it line the pockets of the already wealthy? All indications say that it did. This is the law that Bill C-18 supporters were modelling off of and, as a result, threatens to repeat the exact same mistakes as well. If you were foolish enough to believe the hype and think Bill C-18 was somehow going to save you, well, whether Google and Facebook drop news links altogether or go along with it, defying all odds, logic, and reason, you’re going to be out of luck.

(Via @pagmenzies)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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