Holding One’s Breath for Ice-Cream (or News Beef Down-Under)

Familiar patterns play out in the Southern hemisphere. After the copyright fight in South Africa, Australia is next in line – this time about news. The digital struggles of the newspapers are well-known: ad money moved to tech platforms, paper-subscriptions almost gone and only a few in each language can be successful with digital subscriptions. Who cares? Had it been about toothbrushes or diets maybe no problem, but with no independent media… well, it gets ugly. Add to this that not only did Big Tech provide every conspiracy theorist (“Why is there so little focus on X? What are THEY trying to hide?”) with tools to broadcast their message to a potentially unlimited audience, it also brought algorithms to amplify it over less polarizing content.

One does not have to love tabloids in order to understand why policy-makers want to do something about the problem. A popular option is to force the tech platforms to share some of its revenue with those who provide the news content they monetize. The European Union was first through the gate. And earlier this month it was Australia’s turn. Silicon Valley’s response follows the same playbook:

The Monopolist’s ultimatum – “if this goes through we kick you out from our platform”

The Besserwisser – “actually your business is better off with our deal” (as if the news organisations could not make that call for themselves)

The All Content Is Equal – “it would be unfair to other content creators” (yeah also to the trolls)

Except if this is not the answer what is? The benefit of news media is that it has standards, educated editors, ambitions toward accurate and unbiased reporting. Not successful every time, but many others don’t even try or actively spread lies. Surely, that must be worth something.

Silicon Valley’s response is not very constructive. More like a kid holding their breath to get ice-cream for dinner. The answer to bad speech used to be more speech. That didn’t work. Let’s try true speech.

There is some cause for optimism: BuzzFeed’s FinCen Files-scoop is classic “muck raking”-style reporting and has upset some of the world’s most powerful institutions. Impressive progress for a website that started out with quizzes about celebrities’ sunglasses. BuzzFeed runs on a combination of ads and donations. That’s great, but won’t work to cover your local city hall.