Before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the global economy, news media outlets — especially local publications — were struggling to survive. As approximately 26.5 million Americans have filed unemployment claims in the past five weeks, the U.S. news industry has become even more shaky — an estimated 36,000 employees of news media companies in the US have been laid off, furloughed or experienced pay cuts since President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13.
To be clear, the demand for news during this chaotic time has not decreased. In fact, as COVID-19 has dramatically altered life around the world, many outlets have seen significant increases in online engagement and journalists have continued to work around the clock in quarantine to provide readers with fast, reliable coverage of the pandemic and its impact.
While the need for news media content has increased, many outlets have also lost revenue from canceled events and ad campaigns as social distancing measures have tightened. For smaller publications — which typically rely on local businesses to run advertising campaigns to generate revenue –– small businesses fighting to keep their doors open means the potential loss of revenue. As media outlets struggle while working more than before to deliver accurate news online, it’s crucial for large technology companies like Google to start compensating publications when their content shows up in search results.
For years, big tech companies — including Google, Facebook and Snapchat — have been accused of killing the journalism industry by commandeering digital advertising revenue and making billions off of online news content at little to no cost to their own wallets. Because many users use large digital platforms like Google to search for news and then only read the blurb without clicking on the actual link, Google often gets revenue-generating traffic for news content while the writers of said content get none.
Not only that, but Google has declared that their mission is to help journalism “thrive in the digital age.” While the Google News Initiative has provided journalists with emergency relief funds and resources, Google has continued to pocket large amounts of money for news media publications without compensating said publications fairly.
Earlier this month, France took the first step towards reconciling this issue by ordering Google to negotiate with French publications within the next three months in order to compensate news outlets for headlines and excerpts of stories that appear in Google News and Google searches. The mandate also states that Google must provide monthly updates on how they are complying with the guidelines. The mandate doesn’t allow Google to let negotiations impact which content appears first in searches and Google News updates.
Of course, there isn’t a perfect solution to addressing the problems with big tech and the journalism industry, but France’s mandate allows news media publications to receive crucial support during a time of crisis and instability. The U.S. should look to France as an example of how to better support media publications during this time. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — which was introduced to Congress last year — would allow news outlets to collectively negotiate with big platforms. As we look forward to emerging from this pandemic, it is crucial that the U.S. passes this act soon in order to prevent Google from profiting off of news content without compensating news outlets already hit hard by COVID-19.
That being said, Google can also start negotiating with publishers in the US without being forced to do so by the government. While I firmly believe that the U.S. should follow in France’s footsteps and hold Google accountable with a detailed mandate, the current state of the country strongly suggests that if guidelines are going to be passed, it won’t happen in the immediate future.
Rather than waiting for Congress to force their hand, Google should proactively start negotiating compensation rates with publications for news content in the US. Delaying the start of this process until forced by the government only means that Google will watch thousands of local media publications go under due to the economic fallout of COVID-19 while they have the guidance and means to undertake these negotiations in a fair manner.
If Google wants to carry out their supposed mission, they need to start supporting media outlets through compensation immediately. I hope that other countries — including the U.S. — will follow in France’s footsteps and force Google to start negotiating compensation, but Google should not wait to be forced into supporting journalism and compensating publications fairly.
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Email Helen Wajda at [email protected]