Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

OPINIONMediaAugust 30, 2022

A major new Google product launched in NZ last week. Why haven’t you heard of it?

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

The launch of Google News Showcase was an oddly quiet affair. That’s because it has a very specific audience, and his name is Willie Jackson, argues The Spinoff’s publisher Duncan Greive.

Google News Showcase, a new product from one of the world’s largest companies, launched in Aotearoa last week. Its arrival felt somewhat muted, limited to a smattering of low-prominence news stories. Finding it is an effort – it’s the the fourth-ranked option in its news sidebar. In a blog post accompanying the announcement, Google said News Showcase exists to “continue our support of New Zealand’s vibrant and diverse news industry to help people find quality journalism and contribute to the sustainability of news organisations”.

Showcase is an aggregation of news from publishers who have signed participation deals with Google, a tacit recognition that Google search, particularly its ubiquitous snippets product, have for years taken the hard and costly work of news organisations and displayed it on Google pages without compensation to support the creation of that journalism. It’s intended to create a sense that Google is now a solid and public-spirited ally to the news industry – at the very least, it would really like broadcasting minister Willie Jackson to think so. He’s the man deciding whether or not to introduce an Australian-style news bargaining code here, and News Showcase is Google’s attempt to say there’s no need.

Google News Showcase for New Zealand (Screengrab)

So far though, it appears that Google’s desire to create fair deals for news media in the region only extended as far as Australia. That country’s news organisations have negotiated deals with Google and Meta worth more than AU$200m per year – enough to create thousands of new jobs in and around journalism, and allow small and large news organisations alike to transition from print to digital with much of their remaining workforce intact. The 2021 deals were clearly affordable for the tech giants, as each continues to operate as before in Australia, and even after market dips, both remain among the 10 largest businesses in the world by market capitalisation.

Adjusting for population and exchange rate, this would imply similar deals with New Zealand’s media would combine for close to $50m per year. While cast-iron NDAs mean we don’t know the precise scale of existing local contracts, analysts pegged Herald publisher NZME’s at around $3.5m. Sources within the Australian media suggest that would be around a quarter of the size it might have been had it been on the same terms as those in Australia.

Other publishers within News Showcase have much less power than NZME – including the likes of Newsroom, the Pacific Media Network and RNZ. If we assume that Google has been similarly parsimonious with them, New Zealand’s total payment to date would be significantly less than NZ$10m. It’s a startlingly small amount compared to the sums distributed to our neighbour, and a cynical verdict on our relative standing as a nation. Thus the launch of News Showcase here is less about its existence as a product – in fact, publishers say it drives negligible traffic – and more about convincing our government that it does not need to proceed with an Australian-style regulatory intervention, as the likes of Canada and France are, and even the US is considering.

The New Zealand media outlets that remain outside those deals can largely be divided into two buckets. The first are organisations too small to be able to get in a room with Google and negotiate a deal. This likely includes hundreds of small newsrooms around the country, from iwi radio stations to community newspapers. The second is the NPA-led collective bargaining group, which The Spinoff has joined, which is seeking deals with Google and Meta that are on the same proportional scale as those done with our colleagues across the Tasman.

While there are some legitimate critiques of the Australian approach, what cannot be denied is the outcome: meaningful and sustainable support for an essential industry, from highly profitable companies which have benefited hugely from having journalism on their services. The alternative is to either let journalism continue to decay, or for the taxpayer to subsidise it. Based on the way the Public Interest Journalism Fund has inadvertently made all media subject to attack and suspicion here in New Zealand, direct taxpayer funding is not an avenue any private sector journalism operator would like to see explored. Deals with tech companies are far more preferable – but unless they are at the same scale as Australia we will see its industry, powered by tech money, cherrypick the best of our journalists, and potentially buy up our operators too.

It’s important to remember that journalism remains a deeply challenged industry. The number of journalists employed here halved in the 12 years to 2018, and there have been rounds of redundancies since. Though there are some green shoots like E-Tangata, The Spinoff and Shit You Should Care About, the total number of journalists employed by those three organisations is equivalent to one medium-sized provincial newsroom. The kind that, absent Australia-scale deals with the tech companies, will continue to shrink and disappear. While the PIJF is currently helping with some of the costs associated with journalism, it is time limited and largely runs out over the next two years. The government has said it would like deals with the tech companies to replace it.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

New broadcasting minister Willie Jackson recently joined me on The Fold to talk about what he would like to see in terms of deals between tech companies and local media. He did not seem open to accepting poorer outcomes for us in Aotearoa than our cousins in Australia – and was well aware that it was the spectre of legislation which ultimately moved the needle there. “Bang,” said Jackson, “the deals came very quickly.”

This contrasts quite starkly with what the tech companies have told us privately. One representative told me in conversation that the Australian deals were one offs, another that there was zero chance of New Zealand being given settlements which were on the same level. That is largely because they don’t believe this government will do the hard work and actually introduce legislation.

Clearly some parts of our media have taken Silicon Valley’s local representatives at their word, as the deals which underpin the launch of Google News Showcase prove. The coming months will make it clear to the rest of New Zealand’s media whether that holds true. Because as much as some big newsrooms are now working with Google, the largest chunk of journalists remain outside, from major employers like Stuff and TVNZ. to small indies like us.

This government has spent the bulk of this term focusing on building out a digital future for its own media assets, allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to the merger of TVNZ and RNZ. There is a sense that it has also quietly been working on legislation which might help create a sustainable basis for the private media sector too, particularly since Jackson took over from Faafoi as minister in charge. Jackson is the true audience for Showcase, and Google will be desperately hoping that the new broadcasting minister accepts their claim that the deals represent fair compensation for Google’s use of journalism in this country.

Unfortunately for Google there is a vast and well-documented gulf between what it has spent here versus Australia. Because our two economies are among the most closely-linked in the world, unless Google and Meta eventually match the kind of deals done there, the threat to the ongoing sustainability of our newsrooms will only increase.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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