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June 2, 2022, 11:02 a.m.
Audience & Social

Should Google pay for news in Brazil? It’s complicated

No solution is ideal. The worst thing that journalists can do, however, is to step aside and let media owners and platforms decide among themselves.

Eleven years ago, I co-founded Brazil’s first investigative journalism agency, Agência Pública, at a time that the disruption of industrial journalism was just beginning. Since then, thousands of journalists have been fired from legacy newspapers in Brazil. As a nonprofit whose mission is to support independent journalism, we felt responsible for helping others create their own media outlets. A decade later, Brazil is seeing a boom of news startups, from community-based reporting to regional digitals news, to national news websites with audiences comparable to the centuries-old legacy brands.

A couple of years ago, many of the founders decided it was time to join forces to create an association. Some of us had tried to join the traditional trade associations, such as the National Association of Newspapers, but were rebuffed; others felt that our needs and worries were very different from those of the traditional brands.

Brazil has always had a concentrated media market, with four media groups accounting for 70% of the audience in a country with continental dimensions and over 210 million people. We were newcomers leading promising business models, and were excited to revamp the journalism industry, allowing for more diversity and offering a perspective to young reporters graduating from journalism schools. That’s why we founded the Association of Digital Journalism (Ajor) a year ago. 

There was just one problem: we would need to do politics.

And, quite frankly, we are not very good at that.

The payment for news content was a hushed addition to a draft legislation whose stated aim is to mitigate the effects of disinformation. Dubbed the “Fake News Bill,” it would force tech giants to have an office in Brazil and to be more transparent and accountable about their users in the country as well as about actions taken to tackle mis- and disinformation. On top of that, massive, automated manipulation campaigns would be criminalized. But while there seems to be a consensus that social media platforms must be regulated, Brazilian journalists like me are on the fence about the payment for news.

A year ago I was elected the president of Ajor. So when the debate about regulating social media came about in March this year when the final draft was presented, I was compelled to study the law and draw my own conclusions.

But during the process of learning about the bill, we have been accused of being anti-journalism and of defending the interests of Google and Facebook/Meta. Each company has, through its journalism projects, provided grants to Ajor (as they have for projects related to legacy media in Brazil). Of course, this would never stop me or other members of Ajor from openly criticizing Big Tech.

I am positive that social media must be regulated, the sooner the better. I am also in favor of taxing social media platforms so they give back some of the profits they reap from society.  As with everything, the devil is in the details.

In Australia, where a similar law was approved, the specifics of deals are murky and both tech and media companies are not accountable. No one knows if the money is being used on journalism and journalists, or if it’s only enriching media executives. And while public broadcasters have received fat payments, community-focused independent outlets have seen no investment.

In Brazil, the bill mentioned that news companies would receive copyrights and mentioned “professional journalism” as a dividing line between content that should and should not be paid for — a definition we all know is hard to pin down. Further details would be up to the federal government controlled by Jair Bolsonaro, who has engaged in record-breaking backlash against journalists in Brazil.

Actors such as the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have criticized the hushed way that the payment was inserted into the bill.

Journalism companies are also divided. While 43 legacy media companies formed a coalition to support the payment, another 50 organizations including the Association of Investigative Journalists (Abraji), the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaji), and the National Forum for the Democratization of Communication asked for the obligation of payment to be excluded from the bill. We at Ajor signed a manifesto that called for a broader discussion that addresses “imbalances” between small- and medium-sized players and the legacy media conglomerates.

To be sure, the bill would only make lawfully binding deals that are already happening in Brazil. In an attempt to halt regulation, both Google and Facebook launched programs to pay media companies. As in Australia, deals are done behind closed doors, the criteria is not public, and no one can monitor where the money is going. Most of the digital media startups were never invited to join, and each one of the 34 newspapers that have joined Google’s News Showcase were required to sign an NDA that impedes collective negotiation and transparent conversations within the industry. On top of that, media companies that have been repeatedly proven to spread disinformation were included as first partners. While their content is being promoted as achieving “high standards of journalism,” many smaller digital outlets were left behind.

There are other ways of doing things. Some have been suggested by none other than Google. In a recent journalism symposium, Richard Gingras, Google’s VP of news, suggested that platforms should be taxed and the money could go into a public fund. This solution could be problematic if a government such as Bolsonaro’s then decided where funds would go. But the funds might also allow the Brazilian market to become more diversified, with public support for local and independent media.

Other models could mimic funds that already support the cultural sector in Brazil, such as the National Agency of Cinema (Ancine), a government institution responsible for the regulation and development of the film industry. Its funds come from sectorial taxes and are geared toward advancing locally produced high0quality films. Once more, this solution would not be free of the risk of political influence or corruption.

No solution is ideal. The worst thing that journalists can do, however, is to step aside and let media owners and platforms decide among themselves.

The solution should not allow Big Tech to remain free and unregulated, nor should it force it to pay the same media owners that have lobbied against diversity in media. Somewhere in between — and with ample and public and transparent debate — there is a middle ground to be found.

But that will never happen if journalists don’t join the conversation. The future of our profession, and our democracies, is at stake.

Natalia Viana, a 2022 Nieman Fellow, is executive director of the nonprofit investigative site Agência Publica and the president of Ajor, the Brazilian association of digital journalism.

POSTED     June 2, 2022, 11:02 a.m.
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