google news app icon on phone
(Image: Adobe)

Just where journalism fits into the internet-enabled attention economy has become clearer with the announcement by Google that it is joining Facebook in trialling payments to publishers for using stories in specialist news products.

In today’s announcement, Google says it is focussing on supporting local and regional publishers including in Australia with “a richer experience” beyond the traditional search snippets. That’s the sector most knocked around by the collapse of advertising, particularly during the COVID-19 shock.

The Google plan (like the Facebook announcement earlier this month) suggests that in an internet dominated by the two big platforms, news and journalism will have its own (paid for) space. But will the audience follow?

Journalism has always traded in three markets: attention, influence and money. How will this new space for journalism on the platforms play out across those three planes?

In a blog post overnight (and in a Google Meet this morning), Google announced it would pay selected publishers in Australia, Brazil and Germany for their content to be included in a yet-to-be-launched news product. Google will also pay for some user access to otherwise-paywalled content, presumably through a per-story distribution like the subscription-funded Apple News Plus launched last year. 

In Australia, the companies that have agreed to partner with Google on the initiative are largely newer and independent media like Private Media, publisher of Crikey, Schwartz Media, publisher of The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, The Conversation and Solstice Media which produces Adelaide’s InDaily and InQueensland.

Google is also understood to be close to finalising an agreement with Australian Community Media, owner of the largest pool of regional and suburban newspapers.

The traditional Australian publishers — News Corp, NIne, Seven West Media — are holding out for a (still not agreed) cut of the tech platforms’ Australian revenues imposed through an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)-mediated mandatory code underpinned, if necessary, by legislation. The Guardian is currently aligning with the traditional publishers.

In Germany, the traditional publishers have joined the Google initiative — Der Spiegel, Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit as well as regional mastheads. In Brazil, the major partners are local publishing chains.

The Google plan follows Facebook, which early this month revamped its news tab (as distinct from its news feed) to include a particular focus on local news. It has been paying selected publishers — including News Corp — since it started trials of the tab last October, launched with a joint press event starring Facebook and News Corp CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Robert Thomson.

At the time, Facebook said the tab would be rolled out worldwide within six months. It remains restricted to the US market in mobile apps discoverable by searching through the “see more” menu button. Unlike the Facebook news feed, the tab is largely curated by actual humans.

Google currently has three news-related products: news-specific search with a tab under the search bar, the discover function in the Chrome Android menu and the Google News app. All are algorithmic. None are monetised with advertising. News stories also appear in general search results. Discover and the News app will likely be used to trial the new product.

In 2015, Google launched its digital news initiative, in response to an earlier threat of regulation by the European Union. The Facebook journalism project was launched two years later. (Crikey has participated in both programs.)

Critics within the industry dismiss these projects, and this year’s shift to direct payments, as a ploy to shrug off the traditional media, along with their political allies (like, say, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg who’s promised Australian publishers the mandatory code).

Too little, the publishers say, for the value costly journalism brings or as compensation for the advertising dollars the platforms now capture.

Although traditional publishers value their own work more highly than the platforms or, perhaps, most platform users, money can always be agreed. More, the dispute is about attention and influence.

Journalism has traditionally positioned itself in a credentialled space (newspapers,  the 6pm TV news) which says: “You can trust this.”  The understanding of those spaces brought the attention of audiences (and advertisers) which delivered influence.

But in the platform web where attention and influence is built on the serendipity of search and social discovery, separate spaces like paywalled web pages, apps or in-platform tabs risk sacrificing audiences for dollars.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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