In his latest blog post on Holdthefrontpage this week, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson argued that the last thing Google and Facebook should do is give in to demands from the News Media Association to subsidise the regional press.
Steve’s argument is that the NMA represents big companies like Trinity Mirror (my employer), Johnston Press and Newsquest, each of which makes lots of money, so they shouldn’t get subsidies.
For once, I agree with Steve. Facebook and Google have no place subsidising the Press in the UK.
They do, however, need to do more to ensure that those paying for the creation of the content which helps power their digital services are rewarded fairly for it.
Which is exactly what the NMA – which incidentally represents an awful lot of small publishers, including some of the ones Steve argues should be subsidised by the internet giants – is seeking.
Not a handout, but fair compensation. The NMA argues for the latter, not as Steve suggests, for the former.
Nowhere in the NMA’s recent digital research does it conclude that handouts are required. Indeed, handouts would be bad for an industry which is needs to continue to reconnect meaningfully with readers as much it does find new revenue streams.
The NMA’s research, summed up here by Press Gazette, found that over the last 12 months, 47% of interactions on social media involved material sourced from the UK’s top 100 news sites.
It would be wrong to say Google and Facebook haven’t had some positive impact on regional journalism. Facebook enables reporters to connect and build communities around their work (an under-rated but increasingly important skill), and its algorthym can, when tuned correctly, reward publishers who make an effort to engage readers with honestly-promoted content.
Google, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for news brands to be useful across a myriad of subjects, and Parse.ly’s live referrer data suggests Google is once again overtaking Facebook as the primary referrer of traffic.
Both have taken steps to support revenue at publishers. Google hosts the AMP network of fast-loading publisher pages, as well as running its own huge ad network into which most publishers are connected. Facebook too has its own ad network, and the launch of Facebook Instant Articles brought with it the first true audience-brings-revenue source from the social media giant.
But as the NMA research shows, both have more to do.
The Newsagent as King of Content
Imagine if in the 1980s a newsagent had hit upon the idea of getting more people to read his local ads noticeboard in the shop window by pinning the pages of a local newspaper every day to the window, and then placed his ads around it.
You could, of course, still buy the newspaper by going inside the shop. But you’d have probably read the bits you were interested in, and maybe even seen an ad which was far more relevant to you because it was placed by someone very local too.
What would the publisher in question do? Well, in the 1980s probably threaten to stop stocking the shop, which might have worked. But what if that newsagent owned a chain across the area which was responsible for the bulk of your sales, or he convinced his colleagues to do the same?
It all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? Yet that’s exactly when the content-funding media finds itself. The readers who reach our content on some platforms – AMP, FBIA, our own sites and apps – we can earn income from, and Google and Facebook are responsible for sending a lot of those readers to us.
But what about the pages upon pages of results in Google which are driven by local content provided by publishers, or the literally millions of Facebook news feeds which are populated with our content which is being shared by people?
That’s why the NMA research is so important. There’s a whole world of value underpinning the local relevance of Google, Facebook and others which is funded by the regional media.
And we deserve a fairer share of the revenue associated with presence of our content on pages from which people find the information they need – such as Google’s increasing tendency to serve up the content of what’s on listicles natively on the search page before offering a link.
It’s easy to blame Google and Facebook for the problems facing regional media, but it’s also unfair to. They succeed because they super-serve their users’ needs. Life is local as it always was – and Google and Facebook’s ability to super-serve local is aided massively by the regional press.
So it’s not about subsidy. It’s about fair reward for services provided. It’s not about size of business (that’s an increasingly irrelevant discussion as I suggested last week), but value offered by a business to the giants who pretty much own the internet.
When it comes to finding a solution for journalism’s funding model, everyone’s in same boat. It’s all about effort vs reward – same as it always has been.