Flat White

The government is out of its depth in the Facebook fight

20 February 2021

2:06 PM

20 February 2021

2:06 PM

The Australian government is completely out of line and out of its depth in intervening in the media industry as, essentially, a judge of journalism.

Nothing stops a publisher, whether a major media empire or a blogger, from charging for the ability to read their content.

Indeed, that is at the core of the publishing game, and always has been. Yes, another important revenue stream is advertising, however that is a secondary consideration that only comes after you have developed your readership base, and is in no way guaranteed.

Many publishers, for many years now, have tried to invert the traditional system, distributing their news for free in a bid to develop the largest possible readership base to then be able to sell more advertising, given advertisers generally feel the more eyeballs the better.

Other publishers take a mixed approach, charging a subscription fee or pay per read or publication, but balancing their pricing and advertising strategy accordingly. Charge more for access to your news, have fewer potential readers, and limit your appeal to advertisers, but make money from subscriptions. Charge less, make very little from subscriptions, but attract more readers and potentially much more advertising revenue.

Of course, all of the above is dependent on a few other factors, the king or queen of which is the quality of your content.

Aye, there’s the rub. 

Put out as many stories as you want on any given day and if no one is interested in reading about it, or you simply can’t find anyone to read it, then it is worth about as much as toilet paper (scratch that, the latter is much more valuable these days). And no advertisers will be interested, of course.

Conversely, if your content manages to attract readers, you gain not only page views on your website or physical product, but you may even be able to convince those readers to pay for it. Again, the quality of your content is key: if a reader feels they can go without it or find it cheaper elsewhere, they will generally do so.

These are the basic equations that all publishers grapple with, and on which they base the success of their businesses. And that is how good journalists get discovered and develop their skills. If you can’t research and write something that people want to read, best get out of the game. Same goes for the publishing entity itself.

Enter Google and Facebook, a search engine and a social media platform, respectively (at least to begin with).

Essentially, all publishers, of all shapes and sizes, started using, or shall we say taking advantage of each of these platforms (and others) as free marketing tools, allowing them to spread their headlines and even full versions of their content far and wide, for free, in a bid to attract more eyeballs to their websites or physical products. And they do so to this day.

Note that publishers are and always have been the active players in this process, in that they make use of the platforms to promote their product, and that no one or entity is forcing them to do this.

Of course, independently of this, each platform allows and indeed encourages their users to post and share third party content, either by the special share buttons or forwarding features, or simply cutting and pasting web addresses, such that most headlines and news can be included. Hence, such content spreads organically, with no direct link to the publishers’ actions.

And most publishers have been and still are happy with that! It’s free promotion and distribution, in a sense, and would not otherwise exist.

But, most importantly, there is no one forcing them to participate in this process. If you don’t like it, don’t allow your news to be forwarded or shared. It is as simple as that, and yes, that is possible, just as publishers of physical magazines sometimes wrap their publications in plastic, so you can’t browse through the edition at the news agency or in the shopping line.

This approach has been around ever since Google and Facebook emerged, and nothing has changed of late.

The only thing that has happened is that some publishers have not managed to convert their use of Facebook and Google as promotional tools and free distribution channels to fantastic new rivers of advertising dollars and/or new paying subscribers, even after years of trying.

Full stop.

Yet many publishers have managed this transition, and others have avoided it altogether. Again, there is no one forcing anyone to promote themselves via Facebook and Google; it is just generally a good way to make new potential readers aware of you. Again though, there is no obligation for any publisher to promote itself or its news on either of those platforms, and any publisher can restrict access to their news at any time, such that even third parties won’t be able to post anything other than the headline.

Indeed, if you are really good at what you do, with the very best and/or most exclusive content, you can even restrict your headlines from being used, although most publishers are happy with at least those being forwarded around and appearing on platforms. Again, it is a simple case of balancing the benefits and the risks, just like any business in any sector.

And that is the extent of the situation. An absolutely normal marketplace where competing interests can make a decision on what they do on a level playing field:

  • Use Facebook and Google to promote yourself, you potentially contribute to them winning advertising dollars, possibly at your own expense if the reader doesn’t click through to your site. But if enough do click through, you can then persuade an advertiser to promote on your site or in your publication.
  • Or restrict some or all of your news to paying subscribers, via a paywall, and you force (or gently persuade) readers to subscribe to your publication or buy your news and/or physical product. And pick up any advertising dollars you can along the way (and if your paying readership base is really strong, some advertisers may even pay a premium to get in front of them, even more than they will for a larger but less engaged audience, which is generally the case with free content).
  • Or restrict access to your news entirely and, if it is good enough and in strong demand, charge a high price and essentially forget about advertising revenue.

Just remember — you can’t have it both ways.

If you choose to distribute your news for free to reach the widest possible audience, you can’t also expect to get paid for that content. That would be absurd. “Here is something for free, but I also want someone to pay for it.”

And yet, that is exactly what the Australian government is trying to legislate into existence. Try it with any other sector, product or service, and the absurdity smacks you in the face. “Here, try this free can of drink, but also have someone pay me for it.” “Hi there, would you like to try this medical procedure, free of charge, but also I’ll expect payment at some point.” “Here, take this refrigerator, gratis, but I’ll be back next week for some cash.”

If the Australian government, representing the Australian population, wants to ensure a certain amount of journalists are supported in Australia, it should pay them directly for their skills, as already happens in the form of the ABC, SBS and other government-funded media bodies. Beyond that, stay out of it and let the market sort things out, which will allow good journalists and publishers to shine, while the weak perish.

Forcing businesses from other sectors to pay journalists and publishers, just because those same journalists and publishers choose to allow their content to be included on social media and search engines, is a ridiculous concept and should be shunned, no matter what spin the politicians and big media players put on things.

Put simply, if you are producing something of any value, then put a price on it, just like everyone else in the private sector does. If you want to give it away for free, in the hope that someone will eventually pay you for it, but the latter doesn’t eventuate, then that’s entirely your problem. 

Governments can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be intervening to reward private sector journalism that fails to reach an audience and unprofitable publishing models.

They already have state-sponsored media churning out mediocrity.

Simon Thomas is a publisher responsible for a range of Australian and international business publications.

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