Digital Publishing Platforms
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2020 saw showdowns between platforms and governments, with publishers set to benefit

Legislative pressures around the world are set to force the platforms to play nice with publishers. Some are taking pre-emptive steps, with licensing deals putting money back in publisher’s pockets…for now. Esther Kezia Thorpe rounds up 2020 in platforms as part of our Media Moments 2020 report.

We will remember 2020 as the year of Covid-19, but for platforms, it will be the year legislative pressures finally boiled over. In the US, multiple Congressional hearings have focused on antitrust, censorship and data security, while moves to force the tech giants to pay their fair share for content have stirred trouble abroad.

Google

2020 was a remarkable one for Google’s relationship with publishers and the wider media ecosystem. We deal with their phasing out of third party cookies in the ‘Data and Advertising chapter’, but there have been plenty of other key moments.

The stage was set for Google to go head to head with governments in 2019, following a row with France over implementation of the European Copyright Directive.  But France wasn’t the only one keeping up the pressure on Google throughout 2020. 

Australia’s plans for a News Media Bargaining Code provoked a spat over the summer, with Google and the Australian government each publishing a series of open letters. The former had legitimate concerns about an unfair arbitration process and safeguards on data sharing, the latter wants to empower publishers to come together to bargain for fair payment for using their content. At the time of writing, there has been no resolution, with both Google and Facebook threatening to pull or limit services in the region.

In June, Google announced that they would create a licensing program to pay publishers for high quality content as part of a new news product. The new set of features, called Google News Showcase, will see more than $1 billion paid out to publishers over the next three years. Content in Google News Showcase will appear at first within Google News, and also eventually in Discover and Search, with the aim to help guide readers to higher-quality information.

As part of the pledge, Google has also said it will offer to pay for free access for users to read paywalled articles on a publisher’s site, to help those publishers grow their audiences. The Showcase has launched in Brazil and Germany, with other countries to follow. However, plans for Australia have been dropped, due to the aforementioned draft code.

But like Facebook’s licensing deals, each title has negotiated with Google separately, meaning that there is no obligation to pay everyone on equal terms. This is set to benefit primarily the big publishers who have more leverage, and has already reduced regulatory pressure in France – where 6 publishers have signed copyright agreements – that would have otherwise given smaller publishers a negotiating voice. 

Facebook

After tests in the US, Facebook News has started a wider rollout this year, and Facebook is working out deals to license content from publishers in several countries to include their content. Its US product now also includes local news and video.  

At the moment there is no hard data to say whether a separate News tab is helping or hindering publishers. Referrals from the platform grew 44% month on month from February to March 2020, and by April, were up 80% year over year. But this is likely to have been driven primarily by Covid-19, with people spending more time on social media and seeking trustworthy information.

However, one notable absence from the list of countries due for rollout is Australia. Facebook is in the firing line alongside Google, and has raised its own concerns about the impact the ACCC’s payout framework could have. In September, the company threatened to ban Australian users from sharing local or international news content on Facebook or Instagram if the government went ahead with the legislation.

The threat did not go down well with Australian publishers. “It is highly disturbing to hear Google and Facebook describe ‘news’ as nothing more than a line item on a balance sheet,” said Chris Cooper of Responsible Technology Australia. “Both platforms are dangerously casual about the prospect of operating platforms in which real news has been abandoned or de-prioritised, leaving misinformation to fill the void.”

The battle with Australia is still ongoing, and will undoubtedly be watched carefully by other governments as 2021 unfolds.

Finally, Instagram has said it is ‘cautiously considering’ paying publishers on its platform, as it grows in prominence as a news and information source. While it plans to include selected publishers in its next tests for paying creators, scheduled monetisation talks directly with publishers have been postponed for now. 

Apple

Like Google and Facebook, there are still a number of Apple-related stories which are developing quickly as we write this. You can read more about their pending iOS 14 ad tracking changes in our ‘Data and Advertising’ chapter.

2020 saw Apple News reach 125 million monthly active users, although the company has kept tight-lipped about how the paid-for News+ service is faring. In July, Apple rolled out a big update to News, which included audio stories, a local news section, and its own daily news recap podcast. The audio stories – available only to Apple News+ subscribers – are long-form articles from partner publishers, narrated by voice actors.

The company has upped its efforts to attract subscribers to News+ this year. One tactic, which has rolled out with its recent iOS 14 update, is an intercept which will redirect News+ subscribers to the Apple News app by default if they click on a story from a publisher enrolled in Apple News+. In short, rather than users landing on the publisher’s site, they end up in Apple’s ecosystem instead, invisible to the publisher’s own analytics.

Apple has also employed similar tactics with Smart App Banners, which now prompt users to open stories in the Apple News app when they open a webpage hosted by a News+ publisher.

However, one of the headline moments for Apple News this year was The New York Times’ high-profile exit. The Times said that Apple had given it little in the way of direct relationships with readers and little control over the business, which clashes with its own key business goal of adding new subscribers.

“Core to a healthy model between The Times and the platforms is a direct path for sending those readers back into our environments, where we control the presentation of our report, the relationships with our readers and the nature of our business rules. Our relationship with Apple News does not fit within these parameters.”

Meredith Kopit Levien, CEO, New York Times

Whether Apple can grow News+ to any notable user base in 2021 remains to be seen. News+ is included in its newly-launched bundles, but only in the top tier, which is unlikely to drive vast numbers in itself. For now, publishers remain wary.

The other significant change with Apple came to its App Store after a high-profile squabble with game-maker Epic. In November, it announced an unprecedented change to its commission structure, with a Small Business Program. This would allow any developer who earns less than $1 million in annual sales per year from their apps to qualify for a reduced App Store cut of 15%; half their standard 30% fee. This, along with a newly-introduced ability to offer special subscription discounts, will be a welcome addition to revenues for publishers.

Others

TikTok, which is used by 100 million people each month in the US, is steadily growing to become a mainstream player. But TikTok’s main share of headlines came when Trump decided to ban it in the US, citing security concerns; a situation which is still ongoing. As a result, many publishers have been reluctant to invest in creating content for yet another platform, especially one which has such an uncertain future in key markets.

As a final note, there has been a vast increase in the number of features the platforms have copied from each other this year. From Twitter’s Fleets to Linkedin’s Stories, they are slowly growing more bloated in an attempt to replicate successful features from rival platforms (Axios has done a brilliant chart on this). 

“This is all heading towards a much more fractured internet, which will really limit the global ambitions of some of our platforms…but they might become more governable as a result.”

Casey Newton, Platformer

This will benefit publishers in some ways; if short social videos are being created for one platform, they can now more easily be used across others. However, it does create headaches in terms of media optimisation as each platform has slightly different requirements.

There simply isn’t space here to dive into the complex antitrust measures under consideration and their implications. Pressures from a Democratic government on home soil and others abroad is likely to leave the biggest platforms looking very different by the end of 2021, and publishers should prepare for the impact a ‘Splinternet’ will have on their own strategies.


This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, download it here.