OPINION

A fair news bargaining code matters for regional Australia

CONCERNS: The proposed News Media Bargaining Code features two major problems. Picture: Shutterstock
CONCERNS: The proposed News Media Bargaining Code features two major problems. Picture: Shutterstock

This year, across Australia, more than 50 newsrooms have either started operating or expanded their coverage, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative - many of them in regional communities.

Newsrooms are increasingly finding their readers on the web.

In a normal year this would be a very encouraging development, a sign that the news industry is adapting to change and investing in journalism.

But, as we all know, 2020 has been far from an ordinary year.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, more than 180 newsrooms across Australia have either closed or reduced their coverage.

Much of this decline has taken place in regional areas, reducing communities' ability to access local news and tell important stories.

And it's happened just at the time when we need regional news coverage the most, as communities face the impact of drought, bushfires and COVID-19, and the challenge of rebuilding for the future.

All of us at Google believe deeply in the importance of news to society.

That's why Google responded to the pandemic by providing emergency funding to nearly 100 newsrooms across Australia hit hardest by the economic downturn.

It's why we have provided virtual digital skills workshops to more than 1000 journalists across the country so far this year, including many in remote and regional areas.

And we continue to help publishers embrace technology and find new business models to help create a sustainable future for regional news.

But today, regional media in Australia is at a crossroads.

As we work together towards a sustainable news industry, a new challenge has emerged that has the potential to undo much of the progress regional news publishers have been making to engage new readers and grow.

A proposed new law - the News Media Bargaining Code - threatens not only Google's ability to work with news publishers, but also many of the services we provide to all Australians, like Google Search and YouTube.

We are not against a law that governs the relationships between news businesses and digital platforms.

We already partner closely with Australian news media businesses in many ways. But the current draft code is unworkable.

There are two major problems with what is being proposed.

First, the negotiating model moves away from that cherished Australian principle of a fair go.

The code is set up to take into account the costs that publishers carry to produce news, but ignores Google's costs and the significant value that Google delivers to publishers, including the billions of free clicks Google sends to news websites that they can monetise or turn into subscribers.

Put simply, it's extremely one-sided and unfair - so unfair that no company should be asked to accept it.

Google has always been a place where both small and large publishers can thrive equally.

This code threatens that and creates a dichotomy between the interests of large and small publishers, which would ultimately hurt the sustainability and diversity of news media in our country.

Around the world, we're forming partnerships that will see us pay to licence online news content for the recently-announced Google News Showcase.

Australia was one of the first countries where we'd signed deals for News Showcase - including Australian Community Media - but it had to be put on hold because of the uncertainty caused by the draft code.

The second major problem is the draft code would give certain publishers privileged access to information about Google's search systems - meaning they could artificially inflate their ranking in search results at the expense of every other business or website owner.

That's a problem for all regional businesses, not just newspapers.

Google is a proud contributor to regional Australia.

We directly support more than 40,000 jobs in regional communities, and help businesses in these communities make almost 400,000 connections with customers a year.

We feel a great sense of responsibility to contribute to regional communities' economic recovery, whether it's committing funding to disaster preparedness or ensuring local businesses have the digital skills and tools they need.

But a code that is unworkable will hurt Google's ability to provide services like Search and YouTube that are used by millions of people and businesses across regional Australia. That is just the simple and unfortunate reality.

The draft law isn't finalised. There are sensible changes that could resolve the issues we've raised, and we're engaging constructively with the government and the regulator to get to a version of the code that's workable for everyone.

A healthy news industry has to be part of that strong future for regional communities.

But how we work together to support this future matters.

We're going to do everything we can to make this law better and fairer, so we can focus on what really matters: helping regional Australia rebuild and prosper in the years ahead.

Melanie Silva is managing director of Google Australia.

This story A fair news bargaining code matters for regional Australia first appeared on The Canberra Times.