Publishers Call For Swift Action For Industry

Publishers spoke of the importance of quality journalism and called on peers to work towards some of the industry’s key asks, chiefly payment for news content, full exemption from the online harms regime and retaining the statutory requirement for public notices to be printed in local newspapers.

A panel of NMA member publishers gave evidence at a House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee session this week on The Future of Journalism alongside Peter Wright, editor emeritus, DMG Media, Gary Shipton, editorial director, JPIMedia and Matt Rogerson, director of public policy, Guardian Media Group.

When asked about the importance of retaining local newspapers’ identity in their local communities, Mr Shipton said: “I believe passionately in local journalists and local editors serving local communities with local news and that you have someone in the community held accountable for what is published, whether it’s on the website or newspaper.

“I accept there have been commercial pressures in the past that have meant that hasn’t always happened as we would wish, but that is very much our focus. The more help we can secure in the short term to help us through this transitional phase, the more we can invest in the kind of journalism that local people would wish to see.”

Asked by Committee member Lord Colville on whether the Government should go ahead with the CMA’s recommendations, given Google’s refusal to pay for news content in Australia and their subsequent warning that they will withdraw Google Australia News, Mr Rogerson highlighted that Google have recently sealed a deal in France on paying for news content. 

Mr Rogerson said: “Should Google News pay for the use of content for commercial purposes, the same way Microsoft and Yahoo News does? I think they probably should. The Australian Code is a good step forward in trying to equalise relations between platforms and publishers.”

Mr Wright said: “[Google and Facebook] know regulation is coming, it’s coming here, in Australia, in Europe, in the US. I very much welcome the support your report gave to the view that we need some form of regulation in this area as soon as possible, backed by legislation.”

In its Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust report, the Committee said there was a need for a “fundamental rebalancing of power” away from tech platforms which have “abused their position to siphon revenue away from public interest journalism.”

Peers called for Government to work urgently to create a “new settlement” to protect the role of local and public interest news, implement the recommendations of the Cairncross review which it accepts, and providing support for news organisations in dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Giving evidence to the Committee this week, Mr Shipton said: “Your report was spot on when it said there is a fundamental imbalance of power between news publishers and platforms. The likes of Facebook and Google are dominant, and they can stipulate the terms in which they use publishers’ content.

“To be clear all we are looking for is a level playing field and a fair payment. We want transparency, we want to understand what our content, which is very expensive to source, is generating for these groups and to have a fair share as any other creator of content would want, and in the end, it is fundamental to the news ecosystem.

“If we cannot earn the money from these platforms to pay for the journalism, in the end the journalism won’t be there.”

On the subject of the Google privacy sandbox, Mr Wright said: “Google are trying to get rid of third-party cookies in digital advertising. Third party cookies are the currency of digital advertising; they are the means by which we have been able to sell advertising through a range of intermediaries. Google are introducing the privacy sandbox, which will end this, all the user data will be within Google and effectively you will only be able to sell your advertising through Google.

“A group called Marketers For An Open Web put in a submission to the CMA, and the CMA are conducting an investigation with the view to stopping the roll out of the privacy sandbox. This is, I think, the first time the CMA have intervened in the digital market in the UK. What we need to do is ensure that the sort of interoperability which exists at the moment on the open web, in digital advertising, isn’t restricted or compromised altogether by platforms imposing these ecosystems.”

When asked about Facebook News by Lord Vasey, Mr Shipton said anything that raises the profile of trusted news, produced by professionals was welcome “but it shouldn’t distract us from a fair payment model enshrined in law.”

Speaking on the sustainability of local journalism and the BBC Local Democracy Reporters scheme, Mr Shipton said: “Many, many small titles would have undoubtedly closed in recent years had it not been that they were part of a bigger group. At the same time there is a real move amongst publishers, such as ourselves, to support those smaller titles and to ensure that they have good, local representation, local journalism and we give them as much investment as we possibly can.

“I am absolutely concerned with quality, local journalism that serves local people. The benefit of the BBC scheme ensures that we can cover councils that weren’t covered before, and we can open up that area of democracy…

“We are doing everything we can to support small titles, and medium titles, to see what we can do to make them as relevant, vibrant and important in their communities as we possibly can, that is the challenge we set ourselves and when publishers come along, we welcome them.”

Speaking on various support schemes for the industry, Mr Wright said: “I would prefer if the problems of the industry were addressed by reforming the structural problems within digital advertising, rather than trying to distribute someone else’s money to news titles and trying to come up with systems to decide whether one title deserves it and another doesn’t.”

Baroness Rebuck asked what kind of schemes the Government should pursue to help journalism.

Mr Shipton responded: “Public notices are a very important source of revenue for us, and it is very important it remains a statutory requirement to publish public notices in local newspapers…

“The three key asks to support local media is to maintain the statutory requirement to publish public notices, which is not only important for our revenue stream, but important for the public in each community to have access to that information. The second area is extension of business rates relief, that would particularly help the smaller independent publishers.

“The third is is a tax credit scheme. That would be open to all publishers which could really help support the employment of journalists, particularly in small communities, including emerging micro publishers, as well as the bigger players. I must also reinforce the need for a complete exemption from online harms, and fair payment of content.”

Asked by the Committee Chair Lord Gilbert of Panteg on the role of investigative journalism for publishers, Mr Rogerson said that it was the “gold star” for journalists, citing examples such as the Panama and Paradise Papers investigations, and it is often the reason for why news platforms remain a trusted source, as they “hold truth to power” and “shine a light on movements that are happening in our society.”

Lord Gilbert thanked the witnesses and those working within the industry: “We should thank journalists and reporters who have been on the front line of COVID-19, providing vital information in their communities through this difficult time for the country,” he added.