When Facebook banned Australian users from accessing news content, it clearly demonstrated the threat social media giants pose to freedom of information. The ban also highlighted the power these giants have over journalists’ livelihoods.
The stalemate is over for the moment. Facebook signed lucrative offers with media companies and, in return, the Australian government has agreed not to apply the News Media Bargaining Code, which has just been passed by Parliament, to Facebook or other such companies, provided that ‘they can prove that they have concluded similar agreements with information providers.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg claimed the result as a victory – and Facebook too. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp will no doubt be delighted to receive a cut in revenue from Facebook and Google.
However, there is one group that seems likely to lose out: media professionals. During the negotiations, journalists who use Facebook to create their public profiles and share their work found themselves excluded from a platform now at the heart of their profession. When reporters discovered that the content they had produced for years was blocked, it became clear that this was collateral damage in the stalemate between Facebook and News Corp.
Neither the compromise nor the government’s new media code offers any guarantee that the big conglomerates will pass Facebook and Google’s revenues on to media workers. If we look at the recent history of the industry, media companies are very likely to pocket the revenues while continuing to attack the jobs and conditions of their employees.
Journalists have long been pressed by traditional news companies who expect them to work longer hours with dwindling resources. The number of journalists employed in Australia fell by 9% between 2006 and 2016. In 2018 alone, one of Australia’s largest media organizations To cut 120 newsroom staff, impacting newspapers nationwide.
The number of media outlets operating in Australia has also fallen. In the decade up to 2019, the total number of newspapers decreased by 15%. From the beginning of 2019 to February of the following year, nearly two hundred information companies firm.
Press work is increasingly precarious. From more than three thousand Of Australian journalists who have lost their jobs in recent years, more than a third have continued to work in freelance roles where rates have not budged for decades and they are forced to balance a range of gigs with different employers . For those who still have jobs, the constant threat of job loss has helped bosses increase work intensity.
Meanwhile, news companies have sought to undermine union contracts and lower labor costs. For example, in 2012, Fairfax Media relocated most of its sub-publishers, only to have those jobs relisted in Australia in 2019 after the company was taken over by Nine Entertainment.
A recent longitudinal study shows that gender inequality has also worsened for information workers. Although the ratio of women to men in the editorial staff improved, the “women journalists who remained were younger and less well paid than the men”.
The study also suggests that the skills required of journalists are increasingly similar to those of social media strategists and public relations consultants. In other words, “the increasingly fine ranks of ‘journalism’ are populated by fewer journalists and more public relations specialists.
To a certain extent, journalists’ contributions to Facebook are like any other user-generated content. But in other ways, the relationship is very different. For most social media users, posting and interacting with content is optional and separate from professional engagements. For journalists, however, there is a growing expectation that maintaining a strong social media presence is both part of the job and a prerequisite for getting a job.
This means that for over a decade, in addition to their daily work, journalists have effectively done unpaid work for social media platforms such as Facebook, where they promote their stories, themselves. and the organizations that employ them. As one study puts it, it is “tweet or get fired. “
This reality is closely linked to the rise of “brand journalism», Which is based on content tightly integrated with marketing. Digital marketing, especially on social media platforms, is crucial in this regard, so much so that companies employ entire departments responsible for engaging audiences through social media.
One social media editor in a newspaper company told me he wouldn’t know how to do his job without Facebook. He asked a hypothetical question that recently became a reality: “How do you get people to come back to your site if Facebook is gone forever, or if it is gone?” “
Social media companies derive significant benefits from content produced by journalists and shared on their platforms. This is why, after initially threatening to withdraw his services from Australia, Google quickly changed course and signed news companies to its News Showcase service.
News is important to Google’s business model. Up to one valued 14% of Google searches result in news articles, which appear alongside ads that put money in Google’s pockets. On top of that, the activity surrounding the news media is captured as data, sorted and sold.
For its part, Facebook estimates that only 4% of the posts on its platform are news content. Yet, in addition to the loss of ad revenue, without news content and journalists, the platform would likely lose users and valuable data.
In short, the news benefits Google and Facebook. Despite this, journalists receive nothing for the work they do to keep users of these platforms online and engaged. It is no exaggeration to say that an important part of what journalists do is free labor.
On one level, the confrontation between Facebook and the Australian government represents a conflict between capitalists, pitting old media companies against new big technological rivals. For years incumbents like News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch and Seven West chairman Kerry Stokes have seen their profitability stagnate and their political power eroded, in part because of new entrants. There is no doubt that they used their considerable political influence in the Liberal-National coalition government to insist on the News Media Bargaining Code that prompted the Facebook news ban.
Seen from this angle, the trading code is the latest attempt to rule Google and Facebook and extract a share of the income that comes from their quasi monopolization on online searches and social media advertising, respectively. With a mandatory arbitration process between Facebook, Google and Australian news companies in place, social media companies will be required to pay for news content that appears on their platforms.
As an exemption from cartel laws, news companies will also have the right to bargain collectively, which will give them more power in negotiations. There is a certain irony to this – after all, the Coalition has long tried to undermine ability of workers to bargain collectively through unions.
The Minister of Communication, Paul Fletcher, defended the code, saying “it is very important that we have a diverse and well-resourced media sector in Australia, it is an essential part of our democracy.” Its justification rings hollow, especially since the Liberal Party has positively encouraged News Corp’s dominance of Australian media.
To take just one example: in 2017, then PM Malcolm Turnbull repealed regulations limit the concentration of media ownership. This has resulted in a decrease in media diversity, with the number of large news companies growing from five to four, and News Corp consolidating its monopoly in regional markets.
In 2020, the Coalition cut $ 84 million in funding to the country’s public broadcaster (ABC) and attacked the integrity of journalists. Meanwhile, Australian Federal Police raided the houses seasoned investigative journalists involved in uncovering files documenting Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.
One thing must be clear. This code is not intended to create a more democratic media or to help journalists.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the union representing journalists in Australia, supports the bargaining code. In one Press release, MEAA Media Chairman Marcus Strom called it a good first step, saying that “for nearly two decades, Google and Facebook have made huge fortunes through the aggregation of content that d ‘others have created and for which others have paid’.
So far, the union has framed its support in terms of increasing incomes for employers, while arguing that smaller and regional outlets need to get a cut. Journalists now need a similar guarantee that the income will support quality journalism and improve their working conditions.
Journalists also need protections from social media giants. When Facebook removed access to news content, journalists were excluded from what has become an important part of their job. This is particularly damaging for freelance journalists, who rely on social networking sites to promote their work.
While workforce issues related to Australia’s latest move to regulate tech capital have been largely overlooked, there are significant signs that journalists are organizing. In 2017, Fairfax journalists launched a to hit oppose job losses and calling for greater investment in journalism. Australian journalists and information professionals can also learn from a trend in the United States that has seen more than fifty news companies succeed. unionization voice since 2015.
Despite all the deep problems with the Australian news media, without paid journalists many of us would know little about the current events unfolding beyond our doors. This is why the dispute between the Australian government and Facebook was not just a fight between old and new capital. It was also a struggle for access to information that will affect the livelihoods of journalists.
Regardless of who is ultimately seen as the winner between Facebook, the Australian government and the old media companies, journalists will face continued threats to their jobs and conditions. The only way to win is to fight back.