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Australia, Facebook, Link Tax, And Logic

Predictably, sanity prevailed and Australians will be able to read and share news on Facebook again. Headlines and links, at least. And, of course, publishers can share their own news again.

But that's the point. Many traditional publishers might not like to admit it, but they need Facebook and Google more than they'd lead you to believe. Many have been avoiding the inevitable for years.

I know this because one of my first full time jobs was in the "internet division" of a traditional newspaper group, back in 2000. The "internet division" was - for want of a better description - a side show. This new fangled internet thing was becoming popular, and websites would be a cross-sell.

So I spent four years building websites for people who didn't need them. Carpenters, plumbers, funeral directors, mobile home sellers. If you took out a classified ad in one of our papers, you were on the target list. I even built a fully functioning ecommerce website for a guy who made jewellery.

I'm not sure he ever made his money back. In 2000 most people didn't have broadband. Or use credit cards to buy things online. Plus, Google wasn't exactly what it is today. He was selling into the void.

It took a while for me to convince my boss that one of our biggest assets - the content we printed tens of thousands of times and delivered weekly across Dublin - depreciated in value to almost nothing the second it left our printers. All that research and effort to be a vessel for fish and chips.

Eventually the penny dropped, and we spun up a "portal" - with news, a business directory, courses, games, the works. You name it, we had it. We even made some ancillary revenue from affiliate programs. The portal referred homeowners to mortgages. Tourists to tickets. New money.

But we never sold many ads. Mostly because there wasn't much incentive to sell them. The printed papers were where we made our money, and diverting focus away from that would negatively affect our business. That was the theory.

In reality advertising budgets were moving online, regardless of what traditional publishers thought about it. Google Adwords appeared in the early 2000s. Networks like Valueclick already existed. Pay-per-click was transparent, accessible, and accountable. No need for QuarkXPress or graphic design.

After a long, slow demise the newspaper group I started my interweb career at went into liquidation in 2020. A shell of its former self, even the "internet division" had hit a brick wall. Too little, too late.

So, when I read "Paying for news" by Ben Evans, my reaction was furious nodding.

Ben's chart tells the only story you need to know. Newspapers have been in slow decline long before Facebook or Google came on the scene. Or Yahoo! Or Compuserve. Or AOL. The internet didn't kill the traditional news model. An aversion to new technology, and new distribution models killed it.

Which is why the "Link Tax" topic defies logic - not just in Australia. In Europe, we've seen it play out already. Germany vs Google in 2013. Then, Spain vs Google. Then in France. Google News walked away from Spain (as Facebook did in Australia, to good effect). Most publishers ended up worse off.

Ironically, some traditional publishers are tapping into latent value of social networks to transition themselves to modern business models. News Corp Australia recently experimented with "...a technology that lets brands reformat their social media ads for websites, such as those for its Herald Sun and Australian newspapers."

Ben Thompson from Stratechery recently wrote "Publishing is Back to the Future." A great headline.

Marshall McLuhan may have said it even better. Many traditional publishers seem to be on a slow "...march backwards into the future." I hope, for the sake of good journalism, they turn around and accept the reality of the internet age.

Before they inadvertently walk themselves - backwards - off a ledge.