Local news in Australia: is help on the way?

Local newsrooms will be one of the winners if the recommendations of a new Digital Platforms Enquiry Report are implemented.


Local news will benefit, if the recommendations in an ACCC report are implemented. Photo: Nasya Bahfen

Local and public interest journalism in Australia will receive a boost if recommendations from a new report into digital news platforms are implemented.

The twenty three recommendations in the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Enquiry Report include more reliable funding for public broadcasters, larger targeted grants for local journalism, and tax breaks for philanthropy for not-for-profit media organisations.

What is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Digital Platforms Enquiry?

The July 2019 Digital Platforms Enquiry is a world-first attempt to analyse, and propose regulation for, the huge market power of digital platforms like Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Twitter.

The recommendations are sweeping, covering the impact of these digital behemoths on society, the economy and the provision of news. They examine anti-competitive behaviour, privacy violations, consumer protections and the quality of journalism.

The 623-page report meticulously documents the changing nature of the digital landscape, the resulting decimation of local news stories, and the declining viability of local and regional newspapers.

Why did the ACCC start the enquiry?

The Australian government sees the dominance of the large digital platforms as a monopoly issue, making it appropriate that the enquiry was conducted by the ACCC – Australia’s consumer watchdog.

The rise of digital platforms and the resulting transformation of the marketplace have been swifter than efforts by legislators to regulate them.

In addition to proposals addressing consumer protections, privacy law, data protection and anti-competitive behaviour, the enquiry outlines a plan to modernise Australia’s media laws in the face of massive upheavals in the way media content is produced, distributed and consumed.

The report discusses local journalism’s positive contribution to democratic processes, and underlines the link between the under-provision of local journalism and the decline in civic engagement and the increase in the mismanagement of public funds.

According to the report, the digital business model has led to the drop of local and public interest reporting over the last 10 years, seen not only in a reduction in the total number of stories that can be defined as public interest, but in the closing of local and regional newspapers.

In the 10 years to 2017-18, numbers of local and regional newspapers declined by 15% in Australia, and it is assumed that this trend will continue into the future.

Source: Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report Figure 3, Appendix E


What do the recommendations mean for local news? 

Recommendations 9-13 examine public interest as well as local journalism in their overall discussion of the media landscape.

Funding is proposed to increase federal grants to support the production of original local and regional journalism, including that related to local government and local courts.

Stabilising funding for public broadcasters is recommended, as is adjusting tax settings to assist in the promotion of public interest journalism, in the model of the US tax system.

Media education for news audiences is recommended through specific support for media literacy courses in both the community and in the education sector.

The report also calls for greater transparency in media companies’ negotiations with the platforms, including gaining access to their data and rankings on search engines, as well as to receive fairer revenue streams for the distribution for their content.

In addition, there is a strong focus on addressing the veracity of news, with suggestions for platforms to help consumers verify the reliability and source of their news content, which they term ‘credibility signaling’.

These media literacy and credibility signaling measures may help reverse, or at least halt, the decline in public trust in the news media in Australia. Higher trust levels in the community will further benefit local news organisations.

What do the digital platforms think?

The digital platforms lobby group, Digital Industry Group (DIGI), support the idea of increased media literacy and grants for local news.

They are protesting proposed changes to merger laws – changes that would help ensure a more level playing field in the marketplace, and lessen barriers to entry for new companies.

They pushed back on requirements that they should check the veracity of news, and on who should be held responsible for misinformation. They warned that these changes would effectively make the platforms the gatekeepers of truth online.

Google broadly welcomed the proposals in a September blog post, but attacked recommendations about their online search algorithms and their negotiations with media companies.

Facebook responded to the enquiry in a statement in September. They had a positive reaction to calls for a new code to protect news standards, but do not want to be held responsible for policing fake news.

The report makes clear that if the digital platforms don’t create their own code of conduct around the handling of disinformation, then government should create one for them.

In addition, it calls for a regulator with the power to audit, and to impose penalties, if companies do not act quickly enough to stop the spread of disinformation.

The proposed changes will run head-long into Facebook’s current position, which is that political speech should be free of interference.

Facebook’s policy toward political misinformation is under scrutiny in its home country after it refused to take down a misleading video advertisement about US presidential Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, produced by the Trump 2020 presidential campaign.

This mirrored its policy in the 2019 Australian Federal election.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions this week in the US Congress on the company’s policy of allowing disinformation for political advertising.

Governmental power to audit and to impose penalties will remain a debated topic in the years to come. EU courts recently decided that individual countries have the right to impose penalties on international companies operating in their jurisdiction.

In a sign of Facebook’s likely response to any Australian government regulation, CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently responded to the EU court decision via a statement.

“(It) …undermines the longstanding principle that one country does not have the right to impose its laws on speech on another country.” …(It prescribes) the role that internet companies should play in monitoring, interpreting and removing speech that might be illegal in any particular country.”


Source: Digital Platforms Inquiry Final Report Figure 2, Appendix E


What do media companies think?

Media companies , including Channel Nine, welcomed the comprehensiveness of the report and the government’s commitment to holding the largest digital players in the Australian economy to account. They appreciate the focus on greater transparency for their negotiations, which will address some of the power imbalance in which they currently operate.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said in a statement they were supportive of the recommendations aimed at enhancing the choice and quality of journalism, ensuring platforms have robust codes and dispute resolution processes, and addressing the regulatory disparity between news media business and platforms.

What happens now?

The government is reviewing all recommendations, and have accepted one immediately. They will create a special branch within the ACCC to monitor and enforce monopoly and privacy law issues.

In a media release published on his website, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government will respond to the other proposals by the year’s end.

Meanwhile, rumblings of discontent are growing and the potential for regulatory overthrow of the digital platforms’ monopoly powers is beginning to manifest worldwide.

Consumer watchdogs are looking with interest as Australia considers the first holistic plan on just what to do with these gigantic monopolies.

Meanwhile, the ACCC’s Rod Sims is conducting ongoing investigations into misconduct by Google and Facebook, actions that look certain to end up in court.

Sims, in a July statement on the release of the report, seems certain that help is on the way for local, trusted news.

“The world has now recognised the impact of the digital platforms’ market power and the impact this has on consumers, news, businesses and society more broadly. Continuing national and world action will now follow.”

Samantha Deasy is a Masters of Communication (Journalism) student at La Trobe.