10 Dec 2023

From paper to platform - media's online dependence

From Mediawatch, 2:10 pm on 10 December 2023

Five years ago Dr Merja Myllylahti warned our news media were becoming dangerously dependent on global digital platforms which gave them online audiences, but undercut their income and didn't seem to care much about news. What's the story five years on?

Merja Myllylahti, Senior Lecturer in Screen, Audio and Journalism department at the AUT School of Communication Studies.

Merja Myllylahti, Senior Lecturer in Screen, Audio and Journalism department at the AUT School of Communication Studies. Photo: supplied

Winston Peters made plenty of headlines with his claim the former government bribed the media with the $55m Public Interest Journalism Fund. 

The outgoing government had already backed away from the Fund before the election. Labour confirmed it wouldn't repeat or renew it if the party won. 

The long, loud backlash from those who reckoned that the fund did skew news coverage - even though it didn't - was one reason. 

But Labour's media spokesperson Willie Jackson also told a pre-election meeting the media wouldn't need that kind of a cash injection if another of his government's interventions worked out. 

The Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill prods online operators like Google and Facebook to cut financial deals with local media for the news that they've distributed for years for no cost.

"A huge amount of good journalists have all gone out the door… because these big companies come in, take everything and don't give anything back. If we get this bill through, we'll get a couple of hundred million bucks coming back into the market," Jackson told the Better Public Media pre-election debate. 

Two hundred million dollars a year is a very optimistic - even heroic - estimate of the revenue such bargaining might achieve. It's roughly the sum the deals struck with Google and Meta (owner of Facebook) in Australia are estimated to have netted in the first year after Australia's government forced the issue. 

But while it did bring big money into the media there, it's been a different story so far in Canada.

Canada's Online News Act, also called Bill C-18, prompted Google to threaten to remove Canadian news from their search services last year and Meta briefly did so for Facebook and Instagram accounts. 

Last week Google agreed to pay a single Canadian collective which would then distribute the funds to the eligible news media agencies. 

"After months demonstrating our commitment to local journalism, strong independent journalists are getting paid for their work. This is a deal, an agreement that is going to resonate around the world (with) countries and democracies struggling with the same challenges that our media landscape in Canada is facing" said Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The BBC estimated Canadian media might get NZ$400m a year from this, even without Meta and others coming to the party. 

But others in the media are warning that all this makes the media dependent on income from tech companies which don't care much about them. 

Five years ago Dr Merja Myllylahti from the AUT School of Communication Studies warned New Zealand media outlets had already become dangerously dependent on Facebook and Google for online traffic. 

Her study - The Problem of Platform Dependency - said the online platforms' share of digital ad revenues was growing fast, but news organisations here didn't make any substantial revenue from them. 

She told Mediawatch at that time news publishers here should pull out of Facebook - and that Facebook and Google should pay a tax to ensure that New Zealand journalism survives in the digital world. 

Five years later, the outgoing Labour government has left a bill before Parliament that would do that - but the incoming government has signalled it's not keen on it. 

Myllylahti has revisited the relationship between our local media and big tech in a new book, From Paper to Platform

From Paper to Platform - how tech giants are redefining news and democracy


This says local news organisations which continue to do business using the social media companies and search engines are at the mercy of them. They can change their services at will not in ways not good for our media. 

Instagram's new threads app, she says, has no appetite for hard news. Google's search results are offering less news these days. And X (formerly Twitter) has stopped showing news headlines and links on tweets. 

Meanwhile Facebook continues to tweak its algorithm to promote non-news stuff and suppress real news in ways that are damaging and sometimes even devastating to online news operations. 

"Google and Facebook... have become major funders of the news. They are also funding journalism programs and IT initiatives so they are also patrons of - and partners with - news media. So the risks are increasing and not decreasing," Myllylahti told Mediawatch

 "One big thing is the visibility of the news. Quite rapidly, it's disappearing from these platforms."

"In Canada, Google agreed to pay for the news... and In New Zealand Google has already made deals with 47 publishers. But Meta will not come to the table. They have not in Canada, either." 

From Paper to Platform says 35 percent of people in a 2021 survey said their main reason for using social media was to read news stories. 

If so, why are the platforms ambivalent about news media? 

Meta has tweaked its algorithms for Facebook and Instagram in the past with dire consequences for the traffic for news organisations. 

"That creates more clicks for them and more advertisements for them. The platforms are there for business - not for the news business." 

Myllylahti argues our media companies need to make sure they're not dependent on these platforms either for revenue or for audience. But that's easier said than done. 

"I think the habits aren't changing. And I hope that people are finding the news more directly. I think that is happening, because the news visibility is sinking on these platforms." 

"Lots of news companies are already leaving the platforms. When Stuff left Facebook they estimated traffic would drop about 20 percent. And then they said that didn't happen. NPR had a similar kind of experience in the US. Stuff has also recently left X, so let's see what happens with that.

"I don't believe that Google and Facebook will be paying for news for a long time. The evidence is already there for Meta.

"They should stop downgrading the news in their services... and promote that verified content which journalists produce." 

Google does do that through its News Showcase - dealing with recognised New Zealand news publishers, large and small, and paying them for it. 

The Westport News - in print for more than 150 years - is going to introduce an online app with the assistance of the Google News Initiative. 

"Some of the publishers I was interviewing for the book said that Google has done more for them than any government or any other organisation. Sure, for some news organisations something good has been created - and the fact is that the small news outlets have to find a way to sustainability somehow.

"But in the long-term, I argue that the revenue and the business models can be dependent. So there's a power imbalance there."

From Paper to Platform says news businesses are now so integrated into platform services that it's difficult for news companies to differentiate themselves. But some are counterbalancing this dependence, even circumventing it with new things such as podcasts and newsletters which they create and control. 

"I think that's what we need to see - support systems beyond the platforms and revenue models are critical. People should go and buy and subscribe to these news services."