Newspapers are an easy target in Spain. After winning new legislation from January 1 that requires Google to pay newspapers a modest sum whenever it aggregates their content in the Spanish version of Google News, the newspaper industry expressed dismay when Google closed the service in December rather than pay.
The Spanish newspaper association (AEDE) also has said it will call on the government for action if its websites are downgraded in Google’s search results as a consequence of the closure or “merely by accident”.
And of course, Google provides consumers with a myriad of efficient and useful services and tools that makes life easier and the digital world more accessible and appealing. There is no other company quite like it, and it is the reason for its market dominance.
But like most online criticism, the issues are being simplified for the sake of argument: the critics are ignoring the bigger issues, and their criticism is misplaced.
The dispute between publishers and Google regarding Google News does not only concern Spain, but has been present in many other countries, including Brazil, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.
In addition, there is a growing conflict over Google’s practice of favoring its own products over the similar products of others. Publishers and others complain that Google reserves certain online tools for itself and does not make them available to others, and that it does not subject its own products to the algorithms that determine the order in which search results appear.
The European Commission has been asked by online companies and content producers to classify these practices as an abuse of Google’s dominant market position.
The conflicts come down to this: advertising, the lifeblood of news media, has been decoupled from content. The majority of online advertising revenue now goes not to the producers of content, but to its distributors, Google notably among them.
In fact, just one company – Google – receives almost 40 per cent of all online advertising revenue, without producing any content at all. The majority of online advertising is related to search, where Google is even more dominant: it takes 77 percent of the search advertising revenue globally.
Some say newspapers better get used to it: they are facing the same market pressures that have challenged the music and film industries and will have to live with diminished revenues. But news media are not like other businesses, and news stories are not a commodity like music or films.
People don’t seek out news solely for entertainment for its own sake; news organisations are obligated to provide the news and information that citizens need to make informed decisions in democratic society – not only the information they want, but also the information they need.
This is, in fact, a foundation of democratic society, and it is being challenged – and the providers easily criticised – putting the very fabric of our culture at stake.
Even as newspaper companies are routinely disparaged as dinosaurs, everyone relies on them, whether they know it or not.
News agencies, which provide the majority of non-local news to your local news media, rely heavily on the daily production of newspapers in the countries and cities they cover. Television news would be lost without turning daily to newspapers, which break far more stories than any other media and continue to set the news agenda for everyone.
The online environment appears to provide an alternative to newspapers, but is, in fact, an echo chamber, largely repeating original reports. No matter where consumers get their news – in print, directly online or through news aggregators and mediators – the vast majority of it was generated by your reliable old newspaper (albeit with new digital platforms and storytelling tools). Even as their print numbers decline, newspaper companies and their content remain central to the news ecosystem.
But if they cannot finance the news teams – still substantial despite declines, and the largest by far when compared to other news media – they will fail in their societal responsibility. We will all suffer. In this context, asking for reasonable payment from companies that build their advertising empires on the content of others – as useful and beneficial as those companies may be – seems like a prudent solution.
Newspapers in Spain, in Germany, across Europe, have been at the forefront of these efforts, and have been vilified for proposing a realistic revenue model that recognises the value of copyrighted original material as a way of guaranteeing the free flow of credible, independent news and information.
If the commentators need a target to savage, perhaps there is a better one than newspapers.
Larry Kilman is the secretary-general of global newspaper industry body WAN-IFRA.