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What we can learn from the Facebook-Australia news debacle

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Democracies around the world are mired in one crisis or another, for that reason measures of their health are trending in the wrong direction. Many see the decline of the news industry as a contributing factor. Therefore, it is no wonder that understanding how to pay for journalism is an urgent matter and some governments are pushing forward with ambitious plans. Great ideas for ways to get billions of dollars back into the newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to deal with more than one game.

One such idea came to the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would force search and social media platforms to pay news organizations for links to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is making deals with major companies like News Corp, Nine and Seven West Media. But Facebook took the other way than paying for the news appearing on its platform, the social media giant blocked Australian users from accessing and sharing the news altogether.

Reactions have been swift. Some commentators commented on Facebook’s actions as evidence of its monopolistic intent and lack of concern for civic discourse. Others blame the Australian government for bowing to the protectionist interests of media friends like Rupert Murdoch, and putting technology companies in an absurd position.

What else can be done to turn billions of dollars back into journalism?

The Australian approach is now being considered by lawmakers and regulators in many other governments. Reuters reports that Canadian heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada would model its legislation on Australian law. There are also some similarities in a bill proposed by U.S. Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island that would provide a temporary safe harbor for online content publishers to negotiate collectively with dominant online platforms regarding the conditions under which their content may be distributed.

Overall, these measures aim to increase the negotiating power of news organizations and help them extract value from technology giants for the content produced by newsrooms. The novelty of the Australian models lies in its arbitration mechanism, a kind of membrane between the parties that aims to help them achieve a fair exchange of value.

Australian law is likely to pass, so this big experiment in pushing capital in the news media will begin soon. Take a good look at how it works, and whether opponents’ concerns keep larger news organizations privileged over smaller ones, for example, or whether money actually ends up being spent on producing more journalism.

But given the objections to this approach, what other options exist? If new subscription models are not enough to support the media industry, what else can be done to push billions of dollars back into journalism?

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