Crawford Media

Big money for a small audience

Many Crawford Media readers work inside the companies I write about, and today that is particularly relevant. Some of you will have much better knowledge of the deals for news content made in the shadow the Australian News Bargaining Code than both me and this week’s podcast intervieweeWilliam Turvill. These deals are something we need to talk about, because around the globe, two of the world’s most powerful companies, Google and Facebook, are handing over cash to news media.

The terms of the deals are confidential.

Turvill, who is the UK Press Gazette’s North American Editor, recently conducted an investigation into Google News Showcase. News Showcase is a strange product, announced in 2020, that lives within the Google News interface and presents stories grouped by publisher. This distinguishes it from the normal Google News experience which groups news by story.

In announcing the product in June 2020, Google News VP Brad Bender described Showcase as “an enhanced storytelling experience that lets people go deeper into more complex stories”.

So far, there is no indication of any enhancing or deepening. If you come at Showcase in a mobile or desktop browser, it’s just a link hiding a poor interface. In my version, the mastheads are arranged in no particular order – it seems vaguely alphabetical – and the page stretches on and on. You can follow mastheads, but then it’s not clear where Showcase ends and the normal Google News product begins.

Showcase apparently provides free access to some paywalled content and may also be fuelling the Google News app. But it doesn’t feel like a product that is vital to Google, and I would be concerned if this was an indication of the search giant’s design expertise.

Rather than a serious news product in its own right, it seems that Showcase is a way for Google to give money to news publishers without setting the disastrous precedent of paying for content links. It’s a “licensing program”, as Google described it in the launch announcement, not really a product. This would explain why news publications who are part of the program are not seeing a great deal of traffic from Showcase. This is what Turvill found in his investigation.

“You do wonder whether there are lots of people using it or not. It doesn’t seem like it. And certainly the publishers I’ve spoken to for this investigation, a lot of them said, we’re getting a bit of traffic from this, but often it’s not much.”

After my conversation with Turvill, I wrote an opinion piece for the Press Gazette about how the News Bargaining Code is a poor global precedent. It was prompted by the fact that Turvill and his colleagues at the Gazette think the Code is a good thing, because it has caused money to flow into news. I don’t see it like that.

News Showcase is just one symptom of the inauthenticity that the Australian media and governments’ “playing dirty” has encouraged within the ecosystem. Now we have a news product that’s not really a news product, and payments for news content that aren’t primarily payments for news content.

It’s not surprising that in this situation the loudest media voices in the most troublesome market are getting paid the most. That’s another one of Turvill’s findings: big Australian media are receiving something like 10x the global rate.

Where do we think all this will end? If you are running a news business anywhere, the lesson is clear: lean on your politicians hard, complain loud, investigate platforms zealously, and wait for your deposit.