Facebook and the tradespeople

The weird market dynamic created by the News Media Bargaining Code means that Facebook and Google are choosing the winners and losers in publishing

Welcome to Unmade, written during a stormy dawn at Sisters Beach, Tasmania. It’s one of those wild sorts of mornings where even the lightbulb in the kitchen is dripping. A little indoor rain is fine, right?

Happy National Cheese Curd Day.

Today’s writing soundtrack: Queen - News of the World. I’d forgotten just how raucous it was. But having started it, I feel obliged to let it play through.

Back in 1996, I walked in through the door of a nondescript 19-storey tower in a nondescript town on the edge of London. It was to be the making of me as a journalist and an editor.

It was the day I moved from the local newspaper industry to the trade press. The tower, and the six levels next door, was occupied by Reed Business Information. Every floor was packed with trade magazines covering every conceivable industry.

In reception was a giant display, updated each week, containing all the magazine titles being published from within Quadrant House.

Some were glamorous. David Learmount, a former RAF pilot and safety editor of Flight International was rarely off the TV screens, talking about the latest air disaster.

In the lift, you’d constantly recognise faces from the TV

In the run up to the millennium, the editor of Computer Weekly Karl Schneider was constantly on air talking about the Y2K bug. The magazine aggressively scrutinised government misspending on IT projects.

Farmers Weekly editor Jane King would champion the lot of farmers.

The editor of Community Care magazine would wave the flag for social workers.

Travel Weekly’s editor Martin Lane (with whom I’d co-found Mumbrella many years later) would be the face of travel agents.

Each of them was an expert on, and an advocate for, their particular industry.

And soon I joined them. In my case, my constituency was hospital doctors.

So in demand were the editors’ insights that RBI had its own fully equipped radio studio, connected to the outside world via expensive (back then) ISDN lines. When we had a big story, our press office (there were three of them in the team, with the sole job of promoting the magazines) would organise interviews and we’d sit in the studio for a couple of hours talking to a different radio station around the country every ten minutes.

It seemed there was a magazine for every industry niche. Later I had a colleague who worked on butchers’ friend, Meat Trades Journal.

I forget the magazine, but I still remember one headline I saw in reception: “Concern grows over international hen mountain”.

Our resources were tremendous. My title Hospital Doctor and its sister magazine for GPs, Doctor, filled an entire floor. We had more journalists on those two medical titles back then, than work in the entire marketing trade press in Australia now. There were designers and reporters and a sub-editors. There was a secretarial team of three or four.

We’d put up half a dozen journos in five star hotels for a week to cover the annual British Medical Association conference. I’d fly to Edinburgh for lunch with the president of the Royal College, and take contacts for lunch at Marco Pierre White’s Criterion restaurant, and never once had my expenses challenged.

And everybody had to be really good at what they did. Magazines were 100 pages a week, and there were competitors to be beaten.

It was proper journalism, breaking big stories and advocating on behalf of communities.

But the real making of me was the training. I had good bosses who developed me from news editor, to deputy editor, to editor. And the company invested heavily in training for all the staff. There were practical short courses on everything from how to effectively chair a meeting to how to manage people. And the editors would come together to teach each other. The lessons I learned from a short presentation from a fellow editor on what works in a reader campaign - 1. It has to be an issue the readers’ care about. 2. It has to capture attention for the publication. 3. It has to have a specific target that you’ve got to be capable of winning - stayed with me for the whole of my career.

Generation of journalists were trained and created that way.

When BBC Online launched, pretty much its entire health desk were former colleagues from HosDoc. People I worked with edited flagship national news shows and worked in senior roles on national newspapers.

For those who didn’t make the transition directly out of local newspapers, the trade press created a route into national journalism. It was a major contributor to the journalistic ecosystem. The stories they broke would be followed up by the mainstream press.

And then the rivers of gold dried up. For most of those titles, the magazines had mostly been funded by recruitment advertising. When it went online, they shrank from 100 pages per week to being lucky to publish a pamphlet once a month. HosDoc is long dead. What survives is now mainly digital.

Here in Australia, it was much the same story.

By the time I arrived in 2006 - returning to the employment of Reed Business Information as it happens, to edit B&T magazine, I was in another tower block on the edge of the city, this time in the unglamorous Sydney suburb of Chatswood - and the peak of B2B publishing has passed. More magazines were closing rather than opening, and they were beginning to - too slowly - work out digital models.

Back in 2016, Steve Jones wrote a definitive piece for Mumbrella about the decline of RBI in Australia after it was taken over by private equity, renamed Cirrus, stripped out and sold off. As the biggest publisher in the B2B space, the decline of RBI was symbolic of what was occurring across the sector in Australia. And yet trade press titles do cling on.

So trade press publishing is every bit as troubled as mainstream journalism.

Even Publishers Australia, the industry association which catered to the B2B end of town along with the small custom publishers, died, going into administration in 2014. All that remains of PA now is the Publish Awards, now run by Mumbrella.

Which is a long piece of context for yesterday’s announcement from Facebook. The company has created a $15m Australian News Fund which is being administered on its behalf by the Walkley Foundation. It is split across The Newsroom Sustainability Fund and The Public Interest Journalism Fund.

Don’t mistake it for philanthropy on Facebook’s part.

It’s a move forced upon the organisation as, along with Google, it plays the political game of avoiding being designated as a platform to be regulated under the News Media Bargaining Code.

The code is what led Facebook to temporarily remove local news publishers from its News Feed back in February.

Created by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the code threatened to force Google and Facebook to negotiate with publishers for the right to link to their content. It was an alarming precedent for the platforms, as it would undermine their entire business model if implemented globally.

And although the platforms are indeed too powerful, the compromise brokered by the government seemed designed more to serve the wishes of its friends in big media companies than the direct public interest. The fact that it safeguarded some journalism jobs was the bright upside of a grubby shakedown.

But the consequences of this are still rolling through. The threat of being designated under the code still hangs over the platforms when the government reviews things early next year. They will need to satisfy the government they have done enough to contribute to the journalism ecosystem to avoid designation.

After doing deals with the big end of town - the likes of News Corp, Nine et al, Facebook called a halt on conversations with some of the publishers it had been stringing along including SBS and The Conversation.

It wasn’t a great surprise. Facebook seemed to have calculated that it had done sufficient for the big end of town to avoid the designation. But there were some rumblings.

There were not, however, as many as I’d anticipated. I was disappointed that the newly formed Digital Publishers Alliance had not had more to say on behalf of its members who missed out. But with its main funding coming from Facebook and Google, I found myself wondering whether it would feel free to do so.

In the same way, I’ve found myself wondering how free the Interactive Advertising Bureau was to tell it like it is to the ACCC digital platforms inquiry when it enjoys significant funding from Google.

And now Facebook has contracted the Walkley Foundation to administer this fund.

Surely that’s harmless? More money for journalism has to be a good thing?

Except that, once more in this grubby process, Facebook has picked winners.

The terms and conditions of the fund lock out two types of publishing: “Trade and contract publishing titles are not eligible to apply”.

As a champion of all journalism, I’m surprised the Walkley Foundation has gone along with this picking of winners. But there again, Facebook and Google are its platinum partners.

So why had Facebook excluded these two types of journalism?

My suspicion is that when media types think of trade press, they think of their own world - the likes of Mumbrella, AdNews and the rest. That business model is just fine. The marketing trade press is in the fortunate position of talking to an audience of marketers and media agencies who plenty of organisations are willing to pay good money to speak to through advertising. If the marketing press has a crisis right now it’s in serving enough inventory to fulfil all the bookings.

But that’s not the story across the wider trade press. There isn’t the same queue of advertisers wanting to speak to social workers or public sector employees.

Yte it seems that Facebook has gone out of its way to exclude the sector. I asked Facebook for a reason for the specific exclusion. It gave me a statement from its news partnerships lead Andrew Hunter: “The eligibility criteria has been designed in consultation with industry experts to deliver investment where it is needed most.”

That’s the issue. Those that lobby hardest and make the most noise get the money. Facebook makes the pragmatic judgement of how much is needed to keep everybody quiet who might derail its dodging of the code designation.

With the death of Publishers Australia, the B2B sector no longer has an advocate. Ironically, the sector has been so challenged, it looks set to miss out because it lacks an organised voice.

Yet to go back to the (flawed) first principles of the News Media Bargaining Code, the trade press still creates valuable content which is shared across Google and Facebook. By that argument they should be entitled to the spoils too.

At least under the code, news organisations could apply to be recognised as such by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the platforms - once designated - would be forced to deal with them.

Without the code, Facebook and Google are still the ones who pick the winners in an uneven playing field. Big media has done well from the process. Little media - not so much.

The B2B sector is running out of time to make that argument. If they don’t start making a noise, they’re going to miss out.

Time for me to leave my desk for a while. The rain has eased and I think I’m about to learn a lot about how to (no doubt expensively) fix leaky roofs.

Please do drop me a line with your thoughts to letters@unmade.media or via the comment button.

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There was a lot of comment, by the way, on yesterday’s piece on the new Foxtel news streaming venture Flash. As today’s edition has run long, I’ll wait until next time before sharing that.

Have a great day.


Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade