Credit: Photo by Matthew Alexander on Unsplash

Scott Purcell is the co-founder of Man of Many, Australia's largest men's lifestyle news website

Meta recently decided to remove deals in Australia from the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC). This development has sparked a wave of reflection within the industry, particularly among independent publishers like Man of Many, who, while not direct beneficiaries of these funding arrangements, have been keen observers of the unfolding scenario.

Since then, a narrative of severing ties with platforms and moving forward independently has gained traction. We, however, intend to work collaboratively with all social platforms, recognising their immense value in reaching our audience where they prefer to consume content.

It is crucial to add that although we may have yet to benefit from the NMBC directly, we have gained valuable training and resources through the Google News Initiative in the past. This underlines the potential for constructive relationships between publishers and digital platforms.

Meta's withdrawal: a shift in the digital ecosystem

Scott Purcell (above) co-founder of Man of Many

Meta's decision to distance itself from news distribution underlines a significant pivot within the digital media ecosystem. This shift, while profound, did not catch us off-guard at Man of Many as it was largely expected after Meta's actions in blocking news content in Canada. 

We reached out to both Google and Meta, seeking to establish discussions that would recognise our contributions to the digital news ecosystem and enable us to continue delivering high-quality content to our readers. In our correspondence with Google, we explicitly outlined our position as Australia's largest men's lifestyle site and emphasised our commitment to producing valuable content. However, the response we received indicated that Google's current priorities lie elsewhere.

A significant barrier to these negotiations is the requirement for digital platforms to be "designated" under the Code, a decision that rests with the Treasurer and is outlined in section 52E of the Code. It effectively means that platforms like Google and Meta are only obligated to enter into negotiations with news businesses if they choose to do so. This loophole has allowed these platforms to sidestep the formal bargaining processes intended by the NMBC, opting instead for private contracts and grant schemes that fall outside the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) oversight.

This highlights the limitations of the current regulatory environment in accommodating the diversity and dynamism of Australia's media landscape. The lack of mandatory participation for non-designated platforms poses a significant challenge to achieving the Code's objectives.

A widening gap between legacy media and independent publishers

The Code was established to address imbalances between digital platforms and news businesses and ensure fair compensation for the use of news content. 

However, in practice, the negotiation dynamics have heavily favoured legacy media outlets with long-standing influence and established networks within Australia's concentrated media market. This influence is further amplified by significant funding that legacy platforms have dedicated to lobbying efforts, enhancing their political power and sway over media policy decisions.

Being excluded from funding negotiations under the Code has clearly indicated the widening gap between legacy media and independent publishers. While legacy media entities have been able to leverage their clout to secure deals with major digital platforms, independent publishers have found themselves on the outside looking in despite fulfilling the criteria set out by the ACMA.

The political power of the mainstream press in Australia cannot be understated. It influences media policy and the broader landscape of news and information dissemination.

Lessons to be learned: a call for transparency and equity

This inequity has stifled media diversity and posed unique challenges for publishers like Man of Many.

Specifically, the Code could have been designed to ensure a broader spectrum of media outlets, particularly independent and digital-first publishers, are not only recognised but also adequately supported through:

  • Clearer eligibility criteria to ensure that the diversity of the media landscape is genuinely reflected in those benefiting from the Code.
  • Equitable negotiation frameworks between smaller publishers and digital platforms, possibly through collective bargaining arrangements or through an independent mediator.
  • Direct support mechanisms with direct grants or funding pools for digital-first and independent publishers, irrespective of platform negotiations.

Beyond Silicon Valley: developing strategies closer to home

Publishers' global reliance on major Silicon Valley platforms for traffic and revenue has been a nuanced journey. But diversifying our strategies is not merely advantageous—it's imperative for sustainability and growth. 

Several avenues merit exploration, each offering unique benefits and opportunities for deepening audience engagement and broadening revenue streams:

  • Local and niche platforms: engage with platforms that boast a strong local presence or cater to specific interests aligning with content.
  • Direct audience engagement: Use direct channels such as email newsletters, apps, private messaging platforms, and podcasts to deepen relationships with audiences and mitigate dependency on third-party platforms.
  • Collaborations and partnerships: Align with other independent publishers and content creators to pool together resources, share audiences, and discover new format ideas.
  • Merchandising: Roll out anything from apparel to accessories to generate revenue and promote brand loyalty.
  • Events: Host virtual or in-person workshops, webinars, meet-ups or conferences to solidify audience relationships.
  • E-commerce and directory listings: Offer products and services that cater to audiences and businesses' specific needs and interests.
  • Coupons: We partner with brands and services that align with our audience's interests to offer exclusive deals and discounts that drive engagement, return visits, and value for money.

Looking ahead: the role of independent media

Meta's decision should serve as a wake-up call, prompting a reevaluation of the mechanisms supporting journalism and fostering a more equitable, dynamic, and vibrant global media landscape.

Collaboration between digital platforms, regulatory bodies, and publishers is essential to address these challenges. A constructive dialogue is missing to understand each stakeholder's value proposition and align them toward mutual benefits. By reimagining these relationships, we can build a media industry that thrives on diversity, innovation, and equity.

As for the future direction of Australian news publishers, diversification of traffic sources, revenue streams, and direct audience engagement will be key, provided we recognise the limitations of relying solely on social media.

The lesson here is to avoid cutting ties but to adapt, seeking opportunities for growth and engagement beyond the traditional platforms.

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