US Newspapers Now Salivating Over Bringing A Google Snippet Tax Stateside

As the EU is still trying to figure out what it’s going to do about the highly contested EU Copyright Directive, it appears that at least one of the controversial parts, the ridiculous Article 11 link tax, is spreading to the US. David Chavern, the CEO of the News Media Alliance (a trade group representing legacy news publishers), is agitating in the NY Times for a US version of Article 11. The article if is so chock full of “wrong” that it’s embarrassing. Let’s dig in.

Facebook and Google have been brutal to the news business.

Citation needed. Seriously. Nothing in this piece explains how this is true. I know that lots of journalists claim it to be true, but they are lacking in evidence. The truth is Facebook and Google have been very good for some news operations, very bad for others, and all over the spectrum for others. It kinda depends on the news organization and the choices of those news organizations specifically. In other words: it’s the news organizations’ fault if they’re suddenly having trouble because their traffic has dried up.

But this primarily reflects a failure of imagination. The tech giants are the world’s best distribution platforms and could be an answer for journalism instead of a grave threat.

Again, for many news organizations, these platforms are an answer: an answer that drives traffic.

As readers have shifted to digital sources, the two companies have taken a large majority of online advertising revenue.

Note the verb choice: “taken.” As if it was snatched away from the rightful owners: the legacy news business who did fuck all to adapt to the internet. No, the large majority of online advertising went to those platforms because those platforms provided a better result for advertisers. We can discuss whether or not that’s a good thing, and whether or not advertisers are silly to focus on those platforms (indeed, I’d argue, they are!). But to blame Facebook and Google for making advertisers happier seems weird.

More important, the platforms now act as “regulators” of the news business — determining what information gets delivered to whom, and when. With the flick of an algorithmic finger, those two companies decide what news you see and whether a publisher lives or dies.

They only do that if the news publications focused solely on chasing traffic, rather than building up loyal audiences who come directly to their sites. Nothing Google or Facebook do really has that much of an impact on our traffic. Because we don’t rely on them for traffic. They send us some — which is great — but our strategy has always focused on loyal readers, not drive by traffic. So, no, Techdirt readers don’t rely on those platforms to get our content. Nor should they.

If your entire business strategy is based on some third party you can’t control, it seems a little, well, dubious, for you to whine that they don’t act the way you want them to.

The impact on journalism has been clear. Just within the past week, we have seen over 1,000 planned layoffs at Gannett, BuzzFeed and HuffPost, and no one thinks we are anywhere near the end.

This is also misleading. While, yes, there were some high profile layoffs that included a bunch of journalists — and that sucks — the 1,000 number is greatly exaggerated. As Peter Sterne pointed out, the vast majority of that 1,000 number (~800) came from “Oath” the Verizon-owned Frankenstein’s monster made up of various properties from HuffPost to Yahoo to AOL — and the majority of them were not journalists. So, yes, it’s still bad to see these layoffs. But using this 1,000 number to imply that that many journalists lost their job is highly misleading, and pretty shameful for a guy who represents news publishers.

We can start with the fact that “free” isn’t a good business model for quality journalism.

Free is not the fucking business model. Free has never been a business model. However, free can very often be a key part of a very compelling business model.

Facebook and Google flatly refuse to pay for news even though they license many other types of content. Both companies have deals to pay music publishers when copyrighted songs play on their platforms. And the companies also aggressively bid to stream live sports and entertainment content to run on Facebook Watch and YouTube. These deals are varied and often secret, but none of them are based on “free.”

And this may be the dumbest thing that Chavern has written in this entire article full of bad ideas. Google and Facebook pay licenses for that other content because they host that content full on their sites. They don’t pay for news because they’re not hosting the news, but rather sending traffic to those news sites. For free.

Why are the platforms so unwilling to pay news publishers for access to the quality journalism that users need and value?

Again, because you’re comparing apples to oranges. This is comparing totally different situations in a way that makes no sense.

There’s no reason those who produce the news shouldn’t enjoy the same intellectual property protections as songwriters and producers (regulators in Europe are looking at replicating some of these safeguards for journalism).

These are not “the same intellectual property protections as songwriters and producers.” News already has the same “intellectual property protections as songwriters and producers.” It’s called copyright and it applies to news as well as songs. The issue is that what’s happening here is entirely different. Google and Facebook pay for hosting music. They’re not hosting news (other than in very minor ways where news orgs choose to host on their platforms for specific purposes). Instead, Google and Facebook are sending people off to the news sites themselves, which should be a better deal, because then you have those people on your own damn site where you can offer all sorts of other things — some of which might even make the publishers some money. Or, build a loyal fan base who won’t need to go through those dastardly platforms in the future.

And, yes, it’s blatantly misleading to claim that the EU’s ridiculous Article 11 is the EU “replicating some of these safeguards for journalism.” Hell, this is close to journalistic malpractice from a guy who pretends to represent journalism. Remember, we already know what happens with an Article 11 type setup: it didn’t magically lead to the big platforms paying news publishers, and it actually did significant harm to news publishers, in particular the smaller ones.

The tech giants are also run as “walled gardens” that minimize brands and separate publishers from their readers — even while hoarding information about those same readers.

I don’t think he knows what a “walled garden” means. And, again, these services work by sending readers to the news publication sites themselves. That’s not “separating publishers from readers” unless the publishers are so clueless they do nothing to build a loyal community.

Imagine trying to build a trusted relationship with an audience when you can’t even know who they are.

That’s how every community works. You don’t know who they are at first. You build up trust and maybe they tell you. But you need to work on building a direct relationship yourself. You don’t sit there and just wait for the audience to magically find you and then blame Google when they don’t.

Publishers need new economic terms that include more revenue and more information about our readers.

So, uh, build the new revenue models that involve building up a loyal community who chooses to share info and you get that. And Google and Facebook don’t.

Facebook and Google also need to be willing to acknowledge investments in quality journalism through their algorithms. They are constantly on the defensive about spreading false and misleading “news” that hurts people. They could start to address the problem by simply recognizing that The Miami Herald is a much better news source than Russian bots or Macedonian teenagers — and highlighting original, quality content accordingly.

Um, both Facebook and (especially) Google already do that. How does he not know this. Indeed, the entire point of Google is to promote the more trustworthy content. It fails sometimes, but this paragraph misleadingly suggests that Google treats Macedonian teens at the same level as it treats the Miami Herald and that’s laughably wrong. You can’t make good policy decisions if you simply are spouting off nonsense.

Recognizing and promoting publishers that have consistently delivered quality news content can’t be that difficult for sophisticated tech companies. And there are a range of qualified independent ratings organizations, such as NewsGuard, that could help them separate the wheat from the chaff.

Again, that’s exactly what Google already does.

Whether they like to admit it or not, Facebook and Google are at real risk when it comes to the news business. Under the adage “You break it, you buy it,” the platforms now own what happens when quality journalism goes away.

Facebook and Google didn’t break news. Newspapers failed to adapt and now they’re whining about it.

A true leader for the news publishers wouldn’t be begging platforms like Google and Facebook for money like that. He’d be helping those platforms adapt and build more loyal audiences, and experiment with more sophisticated business models. And, really, the most incredible part of this strategy from Chavern and the News Media Alliance is that it would only serve to do one thing: making those news publishers more reliant on Google and Facebook, giving them even more power.

News organizations deserve better than to have a trade organization spewing such utter nonsense.

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