Viewpoint: Canada can learn from the Australian experience

Several publications ran the below op-ed, written by Bill Grueskin, who is a faculty member at Columbia Journalism School. He has served as a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald and Bloomberg News. Grueskin’s work in Australia was supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, and his full report from Australia can be accessed here, in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Congratulations, Canadian journalists! Parliament appears likely to pass a measure that would extract millions of dollars from Facebook and Google and send that money to news organizations. If you believe, as I do, that a healthy press is vital to democracy, this probably seems like a great idea.

The bill is based on Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, which went into effect a year ago and has generated around $200 million for news companies, in a country with two-thirds the population of Canada’s. I recently returned from six weeks in Sydney, where I interviewed dozens of newsroom managers, government officials and others to learn how the system is working.

There is some good news. As the money has flowed in, media firms have bolstered their reporting staffs. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s largest public broadcaster, used the funds to add 50 journalists in remote areas. The tech money was a key factor in the Guardian Australia expanding its staff from 70 to more than 100 in just a year.

But Australia’s system has some problems, and let’s hope Canada learns from them.

Here’s how the scheme works: The Australian government requires Facebook and Google to negotiate with news companies, under the arguable principle that big platforms get a lot of value by surfacing content, including headlines and snippets, without paying for the privilege. If a tech firm can’t or won’t strike a deal, it can be “designated” by the country’s Treasurer, forcing a binding-arbitration process where each side presents an offer, one of which must be accepted.

Silicon Valley initially fought hard against Australia’s law – Facebook even banned news from its platform, and in the process managed to silence public-interest sites on everything from COVID to victims of sexual violence. But both companies have come to terms with it. In the process, large corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have received tens of millions of dollars, while some small newspapers get around $50,000 a year. In return, news organizations often do minimal work, such as posting headlines on the lightly trafficked Google News Showcase.

If this seems vague, that’s because it is – intentionally so. Due to strict nondisclosure agreements, we don’t know exactly how much Facebook and Google have paid news organizations or what criteria they use. We also have little information on whether news executives are spending the money to hire new journalists, boost the stock price, or raise their own salaries.

Some worthy news organizations have been shut out, and they don’t know why. SBS, a large public broadcaster that focuses on Australia’s multilingual and multicultural communities, got money from Google but nothing from Facebook. Its executives are flummoxed, and Facebook won’t explain its decision.

The Australian government could compel tech companies to do more, but as long as powerful media companies are happy with existing deals, regulators feel little pressure to force new ones.

Longer term, some are concerned that the media could build an unhealthy dependence on big tech. Matt Nicholls is editor of the Cape York Weekly, a small paper in Queensland, Australia. He worries about what might happen years from now: “What if Google decides it’s a bad deal for them? If you need Google funding to prop up your journalism, that’s not sustainable,” he told me.

Canada’s bill does include a provision that requires an annual auditor’s report on tech firms’ payments. It’s not entirely clear what information that will reveal, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Many local news organizations are in trouble these days, as print ads have dried up and digital revenue hasn’t filled the gap. It’s understandable why journalists see Facebook and Google as a treasure chest to help overcome that shortfall. But if Canada is going to mimic Australia’s system, legislators ought to ensure that we can see who’s getting paid, who isn’t, and whether those funds are really helping to give the public the journalism it needs.