A new study argues that Google and Facebook should be paying U.S. news publishers between $11.9 billion and $13.9 billion a year for the use of their journalism. Of that total, Facebook owes $1.9 billion and Google between $10 billion and $12 billion. That’s a lot of money. By way of comparison, the recently announced Press Forward philanthropic initiative seeks to raise $500 million to support nonprofit local news over the next five years.
An overview of the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Houston, Columbia University and the Brattle Group, an international consulting firm, was published Monday in The Conversation. “Digital platforms benefit from having varied, credible and timely news content provided by publishers,” write two of the four reseachers, Anya Schiffrin and “This enhances user engagement and makes their platform more attractive to advertisers. News publishers benefit by finding an avenue through which they can distribute their content, thereby reaching more readers.”
The study itself, which is based on “game theoretical insights into cooperative bargaining in cases where value is jointly created,” argues that the platforms and news publishers should split the revenue generated by that mutually beneficial relationship on a 50-50 basis rather than allowing the platforms to keep virtually all of it, as is now the case. “We document that Google and Facebook are making payments to publishers around the world that are vastly below our estimates of a ‘fair payment,’” they write.
The study looks at an Australian law passed several years ago that mandated such revenue sharing. The authors also note that the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, whose principal sponsor is U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would establish similar payments by forcing the giant platforms to negotiate with publishers for a share of their revenue.
Ben Smith, writing in Semafor, observes that attempts to extract money from the platforms came about because efforts to support news with digital advertising hit a dead end. “The drive to force digital platforms to pay news publishers came after a decade in which publishers chased online ad revenue generated by traffic from social and search platforms — only to find that clicks simply couldn’t underwrite the cost of quality journalism,” according to Smith, who adds: “The new study will be a cudgel for regulators looking to squeeze Meta and (especially) Google.”
The question is whether anything is likely to happen and, more important, if the push for platform revenues is coming too late. The platforms don’t look quite as powerful today as they did a few years ago. Google is currently on trial in a massive antitrust case over its ubiquitous search engine. Moreover, after Canada passed a revenue-sharing law, Facebook simply withdrew all news content, and Google has threatened to do the same.
I’ve long argued that lawsuits filed by news publishers over Google’s ad tech are a more promising route to getting some money out of the platforms. About 200 newspapers are suing Google, claiming that the platform’s control of all aspects of the digital advertising market has driven ad prices through the floor to Google’s benefit. The publishers are also suing Facebook, claiming that Google and Facebook colluded illegally. Separately, Gannett is suing Google, but not Facebook.
The new study takes an interesting look at the extent of the damage that Google and Facebook have caused the news business, but I don’t see how that translates into actual revenues for news — especially with Facebook and Google signaling that they’re willing to walk away from news altogether rather than pay.
The ad-tech cases, on the other hand, are grounded in well-established law banning monopolistic practices that cause harm. Google and Facebook have made it impossible for anyone to extract more than a pittance from digital advertising. That’s fine with the platforms because of their massive scale — but it doesn’t work for news outlets, especially small, local enterprises, because they need more than pennies to pay for quality journalism in their communities.