On Monday The Press Gazette launched its ‘Duopoly’ campaign to stop Google and Facebook ‘destroying journalism’.

I love the Press Gazette dearly, but I won’t be signing the petition.

Editor Dominic Ponsford kicked off the campaign by asking readers to imagine two news publishers being allowed to dominate digital media in the way that Facebook and Google do. He suggests that the Government would need to break up that imaginary Duopoly in the name of ‘Media Plurality’.

I can see the argument for that if two publishers dominated the production of news content, but I struggle with it in reference to Google and Facebook’s dominance of content distribution.

Media Plurality’ is about supporting the ‘diversity of viewpoints available and consumed’. I would argue that by focusing on the distribution of content rather than creation, no two companies have done more in the entire history of humanity to enable a greater diversity of viewpoints.

The filter bubbles inadvertently created by platform technology, and the elevation of some viewpoints at the extreme edges are problems. But you can’t deny the plurality of content facilitated by Google and Facebook.

Follow the money

The real problem here is that Facebook and Google have come to control the money in the publishing industry.

To be fair to Dominic, he gets to this point pretty quickly: Analysts OC&C are saying that, by 2020, Google and Facebook are expected to take 71 per cent of all the digital ad money in the UK.

To raise the revenue threat that the so-called Duopoly poses to publishers is absolutely fair. But this is not a new threat – it’s exactly the same threat that publishers have been worrying about since 1993 when the World Wide Web was first overlaid on the Internet. Now, instead of a Print – Digital Standoff, we’ve got the Media – Duopoly Smackdown.

The danger with this new conflict is we finally have a couple of handy scapegoats to pin our problems on. Instead of a vague overarching concept like the ‘digital disruption’ we now have The Duopoly, and the introduction of these bogeymen makes it easier to avoid the real issue:

Publishing’s traditional business models have been blown up by digital technology.

Demonising Facebook and Google won’t bring us any closer to a solution and that’s my big problem with the Press Gazette’s petition campaign – it veers dangerously close to the old-media jingoism we endured through the first Luddite reactions to digital publishing through the Nineties and the Noughties.

It pins a host of bad behaviours to the front doors of Google and Facebook…

  • ‘Gorging’ on ad revenues and ‘starving’ out poor publishers.
  • Burying the truth with their evil algorithms.
  • Not paying tax.

The tax avoidance charges are legitimate; I paid more tax in 2014 than Facebook. But, have you met the people that own Britain’s papers?

And blaming Facebook and Google for not stopping the distribution of ‘misleading and extremist content’ is a little rich from the industry that keeps Liz Gerard very busy counting newspaper splashes hostile to immigrants and refugees.

The reality is you don’t need a digital Duopoly, or even an national newspaper, to distribute misleading content.

Digital publishing 101 tells us the cost of entry in digital publishing is effectively zero. Any nutcase can get their opinion out there. Today, Google and Facebook deliver scale, but take them out of the equation and it wouldn’t take long for another player to fill the vacuum.

This issue is not the platforms, but how the quality of content is judged on the platforms. Pearl clutching on the part of publishers only obscures the sensible call for a meaningful discussion about the quality of news content and how the industry can work together to protect real journalistic values.

Denying the self harm

In tackling the problems with Google and Facebook, media needs to acknowledge the role it has played its own downfall.

Neither Google or Facebook forced publishers to chase for scale, surrendering value for volume in the process. On the contrary, publishers initially saw the search and social platforms as a quick fix to slow growth in digital display revenues.

It was publishers’ deployment of ‘Whack-a-Mole’ ad stacks on an industrial scale that have led to ad-blocking. And while Google’s tech may not deal adequately with ad fraud and rogue placement, few publishers complained while agencies and brands were willing to keep paying the bills.

The Press Gazette’s petition calls for Facebook and Google to be responsible digital citizens. Fair enough, but where is the responsibility in the sidebar of shame?

‘Stop Facebook and Google destroying any more of the UK journalism industry’. Really? Because if Facebook and Google went away right now, UK journalism would suddenly be sorted?

Harsh but fair

Buried among even the shrillest criticisms of the Duopoly there are real concerns about Google and Facebooks place in the media ecosystem and the Press Gazette campaign raises the most important:

  • A fair deal for content creators
  • Automated advertising
  • ‘Fake’ news
  • The legality of content distributed
  • The visibility of differing opinions

Given Facebook and Google’s reliance on the work of the content creators, it is as Dominic points out ‘enlightened self interest’ to find a way forward that works for platforms and publishers alike.

They can be accused of coming a little late to the party, but Facebook and Google are beginning to recognise this. Both have launched initiatives recently, designed, if not to fix the problems they have with journalism, at least to start a dialogue.

But to make these initiatives work, publishers need to engage with the platforms, not just ask for their lunch money back.

Digital dollars

I love that the Press Gazette’s plans to investigate the impact that the Duopoly is having on UK journalism. But I would respectfully suggest that part of that investigation needs to focus on why Facebook and Google are so much better at making money online than most publishers.

There seems to be a sense that somehow Facebook and Google have seized their position in the market through some nefarious scheme to subvert the public good. The reality is, audiences and advertisers have migrated to their platforms because they work.

Whether that’s mashing up photos from a pal’s Portugal holiday with breaking news, or intricate audience profiling and ad targeting, Google and Facebook deliver in ways that most publishers can only dream of.

So, sorry but I won’t be signing the Press Gazette’s petition. There is no question that publishers need a different deal with Facebook and Google, but they are not destroying journalism. And regardless, it’s up to publishers to adapt to the new realities that the Duopoly represent, not for them to somehow give us a break.

Header image courtesy ofJonny Slowhand / Deviantart