News Media Bargaining Code: Where Google And Publishers’ Ideas Of The Audience Collide

New York: Google VP and chief evangelist Vint Cerf’s November 23 blog against the idea of Google paying news businesses is built on three pillars: Search intent, the migration of ad dollars away from news media and the technologist’s idea of the audience as distinct from a publisher’s.

The first two are well worn narratives, the third is in the game changer category, and relatively less explored in the annals of algorithmic mediation. Google has annual revenues exceeding $160 billion, its market value is beyond $1 trillion; news businesses which feed this beast are in peak meltdown.

Cerf’s blog pertains to an ongoing debate over Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code where the country’s news publishers are pushing Google and Facebook to pay for content on their platforms. Like the coronavirus (and the internet), this too is an everywhere story. It applies to any geography where the audience has dispersed from the public square.

Google’s response here and elsewhere points to the core of its defence, it also frames the challenge for publishers in their quest for audience acquisition and retention: “The bigger point is that people don’t use Google because they have to, they use it because they choose to,” Google responded when the USA vs Google antitrust case dropped in October.

Cerf writes in his blog, “The truth is that news content makes up a tiny proportion of the things people search for online (1 per cent, in Australia). People’s searches reflect the priorities in their lives. Even if Google disappeared overnight, Australians would still need to use the internet to find a job, car, restaurant or plumber; to learn a language or get a red wine stain out of the carpet.”

Consumer pain points are hardly a new construct. Nor is Cerf’s explanation of how ad dollars have gone bye bye: “The reason news businesses are making less revenue is not because Google exists. It is because in a much more open and diverse digital market, news businesses began to face competition from websites that have taken classified advertising online, including Australian platforms like Seek and Domain.”

Towards the end of the blog, Cerf makes the case that if Google were made to pay for the news, it “incorrectly supposes that news content always has a higher value to users than any other kind of online information or service.”

According to Cerf, “raw data and human behaviour tell us this is a fallacy.” Raw data is a gentle term for what engineers at the world’s mighty social and search platforms call “data voodoo dolls”. Such extreme granularity frames the fundamental question for digital publishers. How is the technologist’s view of the audience so different from the publisher’s view of the same audience that leads to billions of dollars worth of variation in the race for attention and revenues?

On the other side of the “fallacy”, habit formation is thriving on the platforms themselves. “When do you check your phone in the morning? Is it before you pee or while you’re peeing? Because that’s pretty much the range!” Roger McNamee of Silver Lake Partners, says in the 2020 Netflix film ‘the social dilemma’.

For a longish spell, a nebulous, loosely defined hope held out — that as readers moved online, the ad dollars would somehow follow. No such thing happened, at least not in any sustainable way.

Talk about reimagining the digital newsroom often jumps straight from problem definition into a quick and dirty solution statement: subscription revenue. Even if it were that simple, how much do we know about consumers’ valuation of news against the numbing backdrop of ambient TV, ambient social feeds? Turns out, it is possible to put hard numbers to questions like these, researchers Erik Brynjolfsson, Avinash Collis and Felix Eggers have shown. The results of their massive online choice experiment, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, found that median Facebook users in the US would need to be paid $48 to give up the service for one month.

Research focus is also shifting to causal factors in news consumption. What causes subscribers to pay for news products and why? What is the role of habit? Page views and time spent — two of the most bandied metrics in digital newsrooms — don’t accurately reflect subscriber retention, and in some cases even has a negative effect, according to a Spiegel Research Center study which used two years of subscriber and clickstream data from 16 news partners.

The warning signs of new restrictions on Big Tech have dropped at a time when publishers are taking a hard look at their business models while the reins of the imagined audience have been handed over to Facebook, Google, Chartbeat and off the shelf editorial analytics.

The story and the audience has always been ‘out there’ in the public square. Stay-at-home, social distancing, virus fears — nothing took away from the power of the crowd. We’ve seen that in protest movements, and more recently at the US ballot box. To limit the lion’s share of ‘out there’ to mean audience insights about media use via algorithmic mediation is a mind numbing construct, it runs counterintuitive to the meaning of primary sourcing. Google Analytics’ Behaviour Flow report answers 80 per cent of most newsroom questions but clearly, that’s not enough to move the needle.

The answers are out there in the digital public square, hidden away in big data, in counterfactual experiments, but most of all in places where algorithms cannot go.