Newspaper publishers’ obsession with link and snippet taxes is bad for society – and bad for them

Traditional newspapers have been complaining about the rise of the digital world for decades. Their discontent derives from the fact that they failed to recognise opportunities early on, leaving the field open for a new generation of born-digital companies to meet the demand for alternative ways to access the news. Rather than trying to understand the dynamics of the digital world, news publishers have preferred to lobby for laws that extract money from successful online companies and give it to old media.

This resulted in so-called “link” or “snippet” taxes around the world, with sites like Google or Facebook forced to pay publishers. The alleged logic of such laws is that digital players are somehow “stealing” from traditional media. But that’s an absurd claim: search engines and social media are actually key sources of visitors and thus revenue for news sites, as has been proved time and again when that traffic is cut off for whatever reason (see Walled Culture the book for details – free digital versions available).

Traditional news outlets have lost readers, influence and revenue because they failed to evolve by embracing the possibilities of the digital world. A recent article in the Washington Post explains how things have become worse, not better, in recent years, and are likely to continue to do so in the future:

News consumption hit a tipping point around the globe during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, with more people turning to social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram than to websites maintained by traditional news outlets, according to the latest Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. One in 5 adults under 24 use TikTok as a source for news, the report said, up five percentage points from last year. According to Britain’s Office of Communications, young adults in the United Kingdom now spend more time watching TikTok than broadcast television.

This shift has been driven in part by a desire for “more accessible, informal, and entertaining news formats, often delivered by influencers rather than journalists,” the Reuters Institute report says, adding that consumers are looking for news that “feels more relevant.”

The article points out that this is a good thing in some respects:

One positive impact is a more diverse media ecosystem, where a wider array of voices can challenge narratives fashioned by the gatekeepers of traditional journalism.

But adds that this shift

also serves to undercut the authority of legacy news organizations, draining support from newsrooms that are a primary source of original reporting.

That’s clearly a serious problem, since many of the online outlets for information draw on those traditional sources for their own output. Another issue is that it is easy to disseminate propaganda and misinformation using social media platforms – even easier than with traditional press publications, which are certainly not immune to this problem. It is also hard to undo misinformation on social media with fact checking and corrections when there are no analogues of major media organisations active there.

This is why traditional publishers’ obsession with extracting easy money from big digital players through preferential copyright laws, rather than earning it the hard way by launching new kinds of popular information services on social media, is so dangerous. It allows misinformation and lies to flourish largely unchallenged by professional journalists, the historical defenders of facts and truth. It encourages newspaper publishers to abandon their vital role in society, in favour of a lazy, parasitic feeding off the new media giants replacing them.

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons.

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