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  • Writer's pictureJohn Wilpers

Big Tech: Can we transition from combatants to collaborators?

What’s a poor publisher to do?

Stop whining and start fighting.

Stop demonising and start collaborating.

Stop looking backwards and start innovating.

Stop scapegoating and start exploiting.


When power shifts, things get ugly.

When power shifts because of a seismic disruption in an industry business model, that’s a double whammy.

In double whammies, a lot of companies and people get hurt.

The media industry’s double whammy started with the arrival of Big Tech (it didn’t seem so big at the time) followed by the collapse of print circulation and the advertising-based business model.

There’s no need to rehash the bloody body count; we all lived through it and lost money, staff, jobs, publications, and friends.

The ironic thing about this particular double whammy, however, was the unlikely partnership that came out of it: Media and Big Tech, the “enemy” whose arrival triggered the shifts. Both learned that they needed each other.

But this “unavoidable partnership” between Big Tech and media that once appeared to be a fair trade within a balance of power — content for exposure — has degenerated into what many in media insist is an existential threat to the media’s very existence.

A troubled relationship

That said, the relationship isn’t entirely negative.

We get love (traffic, exposure, revenue).

But we also get abuse (content that generates revenue taken without compensation, mysterious algorithms, data secrecy, privacy abuses, ad stack monopoly, etc.).

Like frogs in a slowly heating pot, many in media initially felt the warmth … but not the danger.

Tenuous partners turned antagonists

Advertising revenue has been monopolised, consumer access tightly and secretly controlled, data collected but not shared, and our expensive high-quality content taken to drive their revenue with little or no return to us.

At the same time, there are those in media who say, “shame on us” for missing the tectonic shift in the information industry and now, instead of innovating for the future, we are wasting time and resources looking for bail-out money.

Four schools of thought on Big Tech

After interviewing dozens of media executives, we have been able to identify four schools of thought regarding the Big Tech-media relationship. All publishers seem to hold at least one of these four views:

  1. Big Tech are abusive anti-trust monopolies

  2. Big Tech are brazen copyright violators

  3. Big Tech are distribution systems that we can still work with and exploit

  4. Big Tech isn’t the primary problem; it’s us. Stop whining and innovate your way to the future like they did

Those schools of thought directly influence the actions individual publishers and media associations are taking in the face of the assault on our business models and products. In this paper, we will examine each school of thought.

All of the schools of thought are influenced by the inescapable current truth: “These companies [Big Tech] are also the most important gatekeepers for the vast majority of audiences. But it is content that drives the demand for the service. To have a business at all, Big Tech needs good content. So it’s important for us to have good relationships with them … but we must be compensated fairly for it.” said Zachary Block, Condé Nast SVP for Global Business Development and Partnerships.

A global push to curb Big Tech

Perhaps the most common media industry strategy around the world has been to lobby for legislation and regulations to reform what they see as abusive, monopolistic practices.

Meanwhile, some large media companies have gone out on their own to cut content deals for themselves. Others are enjoying what they say are profitable relationships with Big Tech.

Changes are happening.

Both Google and Facebook have each launched news channels where they are now paying media companies for content, albeit a small number of publishers chosen by the platforms at rates that some say are below their content syndication rates while others say the rates are not out of line.

We can’t be supine mendicants

The content deal in Australia between News Corp and Facebook will have a “material and meaningful impact” on its business there, said CEO Robert Thomson.

“Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch led a global debate while others in our industry were silent or supine as digital dysfunctionality threatened to turn journalism into a mendicant order,” Thomson said.

Google’s Director of News Ecosystem Development Madhav Chinnappa pointed out that these content payment deals are not the first time that Google has paid for content: “For the record, Google has paid for content where the journey stops at Google like audio content, and we drive billions of dollars of value through the traffic we send publishers, more than 24 billion clicks per month.”

The legislative solutions

Inspired by successful government action in Australia, France, and the EU, legislation has been enacted or is in process in governments around the world to:

  • Enforce compensation for the use of content

  • Open up the secret advertising tech stack and ad selection process

  • Make the content algorithms transparent

  • Restrict the collection and use of private data

  • Create taxes to fund a pool of money to be shared by publishers\

  • End Google’s near-monopoly of the digital advertising marketplace

  • Make tech platforms responsible for the content they publish

For the purposes of this paper, we are going to focus solely on the media industry’s business-relationship problems with Big Tech and solely on Google and Facebook. As important as they are, we must leave privacy, data, fake news, and other issues as well as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and others for another day. We are also only considering the “Western internet” — not the impact of firms like Alibaba or Tencent, and not the “Asian internet”, where the picture is slightly different

In this paper, we will look at legislative options as well as what you as an individual publisher can do to protect and grow your business model and your assets.

Your options for action are as complicated as the relationship with Big Tech. The options might sound contradictory, but, based on interviews with two dozen media executives around the world, each option is currently being pursued by some publishers today:

What you can do as an individual publisher

  1. You can fight Big Tech while also working with them collaborative ventures

  2. You can lobby against them while negotiating with them

  3. You can create innovative new systems while using theirs

  4. You can exploit the existing system while working to reform it

But even Big Tech’s harshest critics admit that solving this problem won’t solve the bigger problem: “The deals won’t resolve the fundamental business model challenge; there won’t be enough money on the table to solve the business model challenges we face,” said Condé Nast’s Block.

The full white paper is one of the benefits of becoming a member of the world association of magazines, FIPP, by clicking here.

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