Submission of The Conversation to Australian Senate inquiry into News Media Negotiation Code

On December 10, 2020, the Australian Senate opened an inquiry into a government bill proposing a “mandatory code of negotiation” between news media and digital platforms, including Google and Facebook. The Conversation Australia & New Zealand issued the following statement:

About the conversation

The Conversation is a unique global journalism project that, in just 10 years, has become the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. We pair professional editors with academics to publish articles that share new research and explain topical issues. All of our content is free to republish, with the aim of sharing reliable information with the widest possible audience.

Since its inception in Melbourne in 2011, The Conversation has expanded to operate in Australia, New Zealand, UK, USA, France, Spain, Africa, Indonesia and Canada. It is read by over 25 million people per month live and over 64 million per month via repost. In Australia, our editors have collaborated with over 17,540 academic authors.

A unique not-for-profit Australian start-up, our global impact is driven by a clear goal: to provide access to reliable explanatory journalism, essential for a healthy democracy.

We place a high value on trust. All authors and publishers subscribe to our Editorial Charter. Contributors must adhere to our Community Standards. We only allow academic authors to write about topics on which they have expertise. Potential conflicts of interest must be disclosed.

Our funding comes from academic and research partners, a handful of philanthropic organizations and more than 19,400 individual donors.

Cartoon depiction of The Conversation staff members based in Australia and New Zealand.
Wes Mountain

Australian Public Interest News

Quality information is as important to democracy as clean water is to health. Democracy is a decision-making process, and without reliable information, voters, bureaucrats, civil society leaders and politicians cannot make informed decisions with safety and integrity.

Public interest journalism is the primary means by which quality information is communicated to the Australian public. It provides essential context to help people understand a complex and confusing barrage of information. It provides essential information that helps us understand our politics, our environment, our culture and our history. It underpins the health and well-being of society.

This is why The Conversation was founded – to ensure that citizens and decision-makers can freely access quality information written by experts in their field.

The consequences of uninformed decision-making can be disastrous, even deadly. A BBC investigation into the effects of coronavirus misinformation found that online rumors have led to mob attacks in India, mass poisonings in Iran, physical attacks and arson attacks on telecommunications engineers in the UK and people swallowing cleaners for aquariums and other harmful chemicals in the United States. Needless to say, this is not the kind of news environment we want to see in Australia.

The Conversation’s reliance on digital platforms

In Australia, much of The Conversation’s readership arrives via digital platforms. Google represents 53% of traffic and Facebook 8%. When Google changes its algorithm or Facebook changes the way it presents news, it can have a big impact on our on-site audience. It should be noted, however, that on-site audience is only one measure of overall reach (albeit a very important one).

Audience engagement on platforms like Facebook and Instagram is also very high when measured in terms of likes, shares, follows and comments. Since January 2021, The Conversation Australia has 325,735 Facebook followers and over 21,000 Instagram followers. Many people interact with The Conversation news content on these platforms without clicking through to read the full story.

Our editors are increasingly translating news articles into short images and thumbnails for younger and more diverse audiences on social platforms. Where we might once have viewed information presented in this way as an advertisement for journalism and a driver of site traffic, we now recognize that for many harder-to-reach audiences it is a form of journalism itself.

This social media journalism is expensive to produce but it is also vital, given the problems we have seen with misinformation and misinformation on social platforms. The growing reliance on social media as a source of information, especially among younger audiences, makes it even more important that publishers focus their attention on presenting reliable information on the platforms where audiences spend their time.

There is currently a global effort to root out misinformation through fact-checking. While this is undeniably important work, we believe that debunking misinformation is only a partial solution. Achieving a healthy media ecosystem requires more than removing contaminants – it’s important to have a critical mass of quality information in the mix to dilute, counterbalance and stifle false claims.

It is particularly important to maintain an informed citizenry which is necessary for the good health of our democracy, but it is not the only value. Digital platforms such as Google and Facebook would have a significantly diminished product were it not for the work of journalists and other professional content creators who create reliable, high-quality content.

Cartoon, October 2019.
Wes Mountain

While Google is right to say that there is an exchange of value and that commercial publishers derive value from the traffic that Google directs to them, it is also true that digital platforms derive significant value from journalism, particular in relation to other forms of user-generated content. Without journalism and other forms of professionally curated content, Google search results would be extremely unreliable.

Funding for digital platforms

Digital platforms have provided funding through grants to The Conversation over the past two years, which has included access to expertise, tools and techniques that help us grow and monetize our audience through donations from readers.

As a not-for-profit public interest information provider, The Conversation exists not to create financial return for shareholders, but rather to provide quality, reliable information for the public good.

News products and platforms such as Google News Showcase or Facebook’s news tab, which can help us expand our reach and impact with the public, are invaluable.

It should be noted that the work of the ACCC and the Digital Platforms Survey has helped foster collaboration and knowledge sharing between publishers and digital platforms. This is a welcome development.

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims at a press conference in 2019 about the Commission’s legal action against Google.
Joel Carrett/AAP


Overall, we believe that the Treasury Laws Amendment Bill 2020 (Compulsory News Media and Digital Platforms Trading Code) (the News Media Trading Code) can provide a positive contribution to the maintenance and development of a healthy media ecosystem in Australia. It does this by creating fairer conditions for negotiations on appropriate compensation between digital platforms and publishers.

We also welcome the inclusion of the ABC and SBS, which will allow the trading code to support public broadcasters and their crucial contribution to Australian media.

We agree with concerns expressed in other submissions that the restriction that news organizations must have annual revenues of more than $150,000 could exclude some new and smaller media players and agree that the threshold could be reduced.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher at a press conference on the News Media Bargaining Code on December 8, 2020.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

We have also previously expressed concerns about the three-part test the ACMA will use to determine whether a news company can participate in the mandatory trading code. However, we are encouraged by the bill defining ‘basic news content’ as content that ‘reports, investigates or explains’ matters relevant to ‘engage Australians in public debate and inform democratic decision-making’. “.

This definition appears to cover the type of explanatory journalism produced by The Conversation and many other independent media which focus on timely analysis of news aimed at better informing Australian citizens.

While we welcome the algorithm notification provisions proposed by the News Media Bargaining Code as useful to all publishers, we accept prima facie the arguments made by Google and Facebook that the currently proposed approach may be impractical and require compromise. .

We thank the Senate Committee on Economic Legislation for its careful consideration of this important subject, and we welcome the opportunity to address these issues in greater detail.

Norman D. Briggs