EDITORIAL: Make the giants pay for our work

It's a terrible irony that in a time when there has never been a greater need for access to accurate news content, traditional media organisations are suffering brutal cutbacks.

News sites, including the Mandurah Mail, have never had more readers than during this time. The role played by Australian media organisations has never been more crucial, in a time of global uncertainty, and disorienting daily news.

Google and Facebook will soon be forced to pay millions for Australian news content.

Google and Facebook will soon be forced to pay millions for Australian news content.

And yet the industry has been facing its own unfolding reckoning for some time, as social media giants Google and Facebook have steadily built fortunes off the back of media content that others - namely legitimate news organisations - have created and paid for.

It's a business model that has devastated newsrooms around the world, including in Australia. The coronavirus pandemic has caused an acceleration of the crisis, with dozens of newspapers around the country closing since the pandemic began, and hundreds of journalists stood down or made redundant.

News that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had released a draft news media bargaining code on Friday was met with cautious optimism. Negotiations between the digital platforms, the ACCC and media companies had stalled as the pandemic gripped the world, and it became clear that Australia's media sector would require government backing, at least in the legislative sense.

The code, announced on Friday by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, could force Google, Facebook and other digital media companies to pay millions of dollars in fines if they fail to comply with the code. He said the code wasn't about stifling competition, but levelling the playing field.

"We want Google and Facebook to continue to provide these services to the Australia community ... but we want it to be on our terms. We want it to be in accordance with our law and we want it to be fair," he said.

He will decide which companies will be required to comply with the code, but it will start with Google and Facebook. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (Acma) will determine the eligibility of media companies.

The government is right to push for this if it wants to support a viable media sector. The market has become so skewed by the dominance of the big digital players that these now take more advertising dollars out of Australia than the local businesses which produce the content Australians want to read.

And this is not simply about consumers voting with their feet - more people than ever are turning to respected news sites - it's that others are reaping the benefits. Facebook and Google are providing free news, without compensating those who provide the material in the first place.

Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines have been closing down - well before the pandemic set in - because their ad revenues are being syphoned off by behemoth organisations that care little for the welfare of those providing their content.

Media outfits are right to cautiously welcome this development, even if it's only a first step.

Google itself has decried the introduction of the code as a "heavy-handed intervention", a strange description coming from one of the world's most influential organisations. It says the code is "not grounded in commercial reality", but this is hardly surprising given Google has, for years, set about creating its own commercial reality that has steadily seeped into every aspect of modern life.

It's time for us to take some of it back.