A revelatory new study estimates that Google and Facebook owe U.S. news outlets at least $12 billion a year for the value news content adds to their platforms.
Google owes publishers $10 billion to $12 billion annually and Facebook $1.9 billion, according to the study by professors at Columbia University and the University of Houston, with Boston-based consulting firm The Brattle Group.
“Existing deals made between these platforms and news publishers do not capture the full value generated by news content on the platforms,” it states.
This comes as democratic governments around the globe are trying to save their local news industries, which is unlikely to succeed unless publishers get fairly compensated by tech giants profiting from their work.
The study won’t be the final word on what’s owed in the U.S. But it advances the conversation about the imbalance of power between a few dominant tech companies and thousands of small and regional news outlets trying to establish a foothold online. It might also help persuade Congress to help news outlets get paid before America’s news industry collapses any further.
By quantifying the news bill Google and Facebook would owe if the playing field were level, the study also helps explain why they are using aggressive lobbying, threats and outright blockages of news to kill or weaken media-bargaining policies wherever they’re proposed.
This isn’t out of the blue. Investigations by state and federal antitrust enforcers found the platforms are unfairly exploiting their immense power. The U.S. Department of Justice’s latest case against Google alleges that publishers are getting shortchanged and have no choice but to use the monopolistic platform.
No wonder newspapers, still the source of most journalism, are struggling to build sustainable businesses online, where much of their work is now distributed and read.
As tech platforms grew into behemoths, newspapers’ combined revenue fell from $50 billion in 2005 to $20 billion in 2022. Thousands of papers closed and others shrank, leaving 70 million Americans with little to no local news coverage, according to the 2022 State of Local News report.
“We’re not dying of old age, we’re dying of homicide,” said Danielle Coffey, CEO of the News/Media Alliance trade group.
The study grew out of conversations between Haaris Mateen, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Houston who received a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia, and Anya Schiffrin, director of technology, media and communications at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
They wrote it with Patrick Holder and Haris Tabakovic of The Brattle Group. The Omidyar Network partly funded the consultants, while Mateen and Schiffrin were not paid for the project.
The study estimates 17.5% of Google search ad revenue and 6.6% of Facebook ad revenue “should be paid to news publishers on an annual basis.”
That’s based on the estimated value of news-related searches, and value that professional news adds to the platforms. A fair revenue split, based on other platform-publisher agreements, would give publishers half the platforms’ news-related revenue, the study said.
The methodology is similar to a Swiss study, done for a publishers’ association and released in March.
Mateen and Schiffrin presented the report Friday at a conference Schiffrin organized on saving journalism.
News is not declining in popularity per se, but most consumption is now online where publishers have had difficulty generating revenues, Mateen said.
“One of the big reasons why they can’t do that is because platforms have outsized market power in the advertising market,” he said.
The study attempts to estimate what would be fair compensation if the power dynamic wasn’t so skewed.
Correcting that imbalance, by giving outlets more bargaining power and a better chance to survive, is the motivation behind media-bargaining policies approved in Australia, Canada and France and under consideration in other countries.
A U.S. version, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, has bipartisan support and nearly passed last year. The study cites JCPA, estimating what platforms would owe if it were enacted.
Klobuchar wasn’t available for comment but Coffey said the study could help advance the bill.
“It’s eye-opening how much revenue is generated off our content,” she said.
Coffey said there’s growing awareness around the world of the power imbalance between platforms and publishers, and that revenue is owed to the content creators.
Exactly what’s owed remains hotly debated. Canada’s government is now negotiating this under its media policy passed in June. In response, Facebook blocked news on its platforms nationwide and Google is threatening to follow suit.
The JCPA would enable news outlets to collectively negotiate content deals with the platforms. If they can’t agree, deals would be made through arbitration.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.
Google takes issue with the methodology of the Swiss study, including its finding that in 70% of cases media content makes a significant, positive contribution to searches.
“These types of studies are based on inaccurate assumptions, faulty premises, and often serve agendas,” spokesperson Jenn Crider said in a prepared statement.
In an interview, Crider said Google “provides tremendous value to publishers” and is “one of the largest financial supporters of journalism in the world.”
That includes grants, agreements reached with some publishers and ad revenue.
Asked if Google believes current compensation to publishers is adequate and fair, Crider repeated that “we’re one of the largest financial supporters of journalism.”
Google will be for sure, if the study’s even halfway right, policymakers can stand up to tech bullying and the U.S. decides its local news industry must survive and get fairly paid for its work.
Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley is the editor of the Free Press Initiative, which aims to inform the public about issues facing newspapers, local news coverage, and a free press. You can learn more about the Free Press Initiative, or sign up for a newsletter, at company.seattletimes.com/save-the-free-press.