South Africa

FUTURE & JOURNALISM

SA conference adopts global policy principles to manage relationship between news media and Big Tech

SA conference adopts global policy principles to manage relationship between news media and Big Tech

As the battle to secure the future of journalism continues, the fate of independent reporting and its role in democratic societies remains uncertain. Big Tech has exacerbated existing financial challenges. To address the situation, various stakeholders have joined forces to explore the future of journalism and work towards securing sustainable solutions on a global scale.

In the face of mounting economic challenges and threats to press freedom, the news industry is at a critical juncture. The digital disruption and declining advertising revenues have pushed many news organisations to the brink of closure, while journalists worldwide face increasing risks both online and offline.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) last week hosted a groundbreaking conference that brought together more than 70 delegates from 25 countries to tackle the pressing issues surrounding the viability and long-term sustainability of journalism.

Shifting revenue

According to a recent report by Unesco on world trends in freedom of expression: “In numerous countries, journalism previously benefited from relatively stable financing and coherent professional values and practices. Professional news media were widely trusted as reliable information sources.

“Over the last several years, however, digital companies have disrupted journalism’s traditional economic model, which was based largely on advertising revenues. Meanwhile, public service media (also often partially financed by advertising) have been victims of cuts in public spending.” 

The report continued: “Advertising revenues for media companies have dramatically shifted to digital over the past five years: internet advertising expenditure rose from a 35% global share in 2016 to 54% in 2021. According to data from Zenith, obtained and analysed by Economist Impact for this report, that figure is estimated to rise to almost 60% in 2023.”

Big Tech and journalism

Big Tech has become a profound platform for sharing information, news and content, with the potential for digital publishers to get a fair share of revenue generated from hosting the news content. (Big Tech refers to the major technology companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta (Facebook) and Microsoft.)

However, many of those who attended the Gibs conference, including journalists, news publishers, media organisations, academics, activists, lawyers and economists, felt there is a need for an intersection between public policy on news media and public policy on tech platforms to build consensus on how best to manage this intersection to build a sustainable future in journalism in the Global South.

Alexis Johann, managing partner of FehrAdvice & Partners AG in Switzerland, said: “Media draws people into the Google or Big Tech ecosystem. But in the majority of cases, the media get nothing.” 

Johann and his team experimented with how much traffic the Google search engine in Switzerland draws with media and without media. The findings of their study suggest users are more successful and satisfied with the Google search engine when media content is included.

“Seventy percent of people prefer a Google with media content versus one without media content. Although currently, there are no solid figures on the value of news for Google. Media content contributes significantly to the attractiveness of Google, but this added value is currently not compensated. 

“So, how can a ‘fair share’ of this value creation between the media and Google look like?”

FehrAdvice & Partners has embarked on an innovative approach to remedy the situation, consulting on ancillary copyright law to create a legal framework for compensating Swiss media for the use of their content by internet giants. After a long and thorough research, they came up with a figure of 154-million Swiss Francs per year that Google should pay to the Swiss publishers.

Chamil Wariya, chairman of the Malaysian Press Institute (MPI), based in Cyberjaya, Malaysia, added that failure to address the challenges posed by Big Tech in the news ecosystem would have severe consequences, including the rise of fake news, job losses, shrinking digital ad revenue, a reduction in quality media organisations, diminishing editorial control and reduced diversity of news sources. 

Journalism as a public good

“The challenge of sustaining journalism, in particular public interest journalism, is far more acute across the Global South. This is not just a crisis that impacts journalism as an isolated practice or profession,” said Michael Markovitz, head of the Media Leadership Think Tank at Gibs. 

“Research has identified that there is a symbiotic relationship, a co-dependency between the sustainability of journalism as a public good and the democratic health of a country. A crisis for the long-term sustainability of independent and public-interest journalism is therefore also an impending crisis for democracy.”

Markovitz continued: “Our focus on the intersection between policy on platforms and policy on sustaining journalism is not to say this is the only issue impacting media viability in the Global South. Many other issues need to be urgently addressed, most of all the pervasive, highly repressive laws curbing media and internet freedom in several countries across our continent and others.

“On financial sustainability, one is not only looking to Big Tech. It is acknowledged that several other interventions are necessary involving coordination by donors, new forms of training, non-discriminatory government advertising and more innovative business models.”

Canadian and Australian examples

In 2021, Australian policymakers reset the relationship between Big Tech and journalism by requiring platforms to pay publishers for news. The News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC) has inspired governments around the world to follow the Australian example, but it has attracted criticism as well as praise.

While described as a world-leading intervention that took the first steps towards addressing the unequal bargaining position faced by news publishers in their dealings with platform monopolies, in February 2021, Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia and inadvertently blocked information and government pages, including health and emergency services.

The ban on news created shockwaves, with the action viewed as a direct message to the rest of the world against embarking on similar regulations on tech giants. Facebook said the regulations failed to recognise how its business worked and claimed it generated hits for local news sites for free.

The tech giant later backtracked and unbanned news content while the Australian government, in response to Facebook’s temporary ban, said it would further amend the law. 

The Canadian government took a similar measure with the C-18 Online News Act, which also resulted in Meta and Google blocking links to news in Canada. The law will force Big Tech companies to negotiate licensing agreements with domestic news publishers and pay for the content they use.

Jonathan Heawood, director of the Public Interest News Foundation, based in London, said that while the crisis facing journalism is particularly acute in the Global South, solutions are not limited to a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Heawood said that since the UK left the EU there has been a lot of uncertainty about its stance on the issue.

He said there’s a need for multilateral engagement and collaboration involving international NGOs, philanthropists and other stakeholders to strategise and negotiate with Big Tech. 

“These efforts could result in equitable distribution of funds to publishers and the implementation of other measures to safeguard public interest journalism for future generations,” Heawood said.

South Africa

Earlier this year, South Africa’s Competition Commission initiated a market inquiry into media and digital platforms, aiming to explore legislative interventions to address the unfair economic relationship between news providers and platforms.

Presenting the legislative options to support media sustainability, Daily Maverick co-founder and publisher Styli Charalambous said one needs to first define sustainability.

Charalambous’ definition of sustainability encompassed three key elements: financial obligations, editorial vision and innovation.

“These key elements form a systemic solution of using incentives for support from beneficiaries and small investments to an unhelpful environment.”

While the road to building a sustainable future for journalism in the Global South remains complex, the  BIG TECH conference concluded with the drafting of 10 global principles, a major step towards sustainable relationship.

Big Tech and Journalism – principles for fair compensation

These principles lay the foundation for transformative change and are awaiting widespread adoption. As the world grapples with the shifting landscape of news consumption, stakeholders must work together to unlock the potential of Big Tech for the benefit of journalism and democracy.

The 10 global principles the conference agreed on are: public interest, plurality, diversity, sustainability, fairness, collectivity, transparency, accountability, independence and outcomes. DM

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