African media see opportunities, challenges in working with Big Tech

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


In Thursday’s session of the Africa News Media Summit, panelists and INMA members dove into the relationship between news media companies and Big Tech platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Apple. 

Robert Whitehead, lead of INMA’s Digital Platform Initiative, identified the four priorities for media organisations in regards to “walled gardens” of the tech platforms:

  • Payment for content.

  • First-party data dominance and privacy.

  • Digital advertising dominance.

  • App store pricing.

With app store pricing, some improvements have been made recently. Apple has moved to lower commissions for some publishers, and there have been moves to allow or require alternative payment methods.

Six issues INMA Digital Platforms Initiative Lead Robert Whitehead has with adtech.
Six issues INMA Digital Platforms Initiative Lead Robert Whitehead has with adtech.

Whitehead shared an AdTech snapshot, citing a lack of competition and transparency, growth of fees going to intermediaries, forced use of proprietary tools, increasing Google ownership of adtech, vertical integration conflicts, and alleged preferential auction deals. Many of these issues are delved into in the INMA report Understanding Ad Tech and Its Challenges For News Publishers.

In regards to first-party data, all digital platforms have pivoted to privacy protection in some form. 

“That knocks out one of the foundations of the business model for news media companies,” Whitehead said. “That’s under scrutiny around the world for a simple reason: Competition regulators believe it’s potentially self-serving, that it’s just creating a greater dominance of first-party data for Google and Facebook.”

Regardless, this is a wake-up call for the media to pivot towards having their own first-party data and own their relationships with their users.

Negotiated settlements for payment for news media content is the “big one” of those four issues, Whitehead said. He shared six approaches that different countries have taken:

  • Australia: anti-trust settlement, backed by collective bargaining.

  • France: copyright negotiations.

  • Denmark: collective bargaining.

  • Canada: an industry campaign to force legislation and deals.

  • United States: collective bargaining, with anti-trust penalties.

  • New Zealand: a negotiation backed by the threat of legislation.

Whitehead called the Australian media bargaining code historic: “It has seen very large sums of money flow to news media companies in return for content being shared.”

With the Australian settlement, we’ve come to a point where we can see the future with Big Tech platforms, he said: “There is a completely different collaborative environment between Big Tech and the news media companies. They have fallen in love at second sight, after a bitter period intervening.”

How Pulse and Nation Media Group navigate Big Tech

“For us at Pulse, we have been always investing strongly in all the Big Tech platforms,” said Katharina Link, managing director West Africa. “But that comes, of course, with a dependency — not just financially, but also when it comes to your reach. When I hear those numbers, I’d say we’ve come a long way already.”

The revenue from content on the platforms is still very low, nearly nil. Pulse’s current monetisation from Facebook, Google, and YouTube has some good initiatives in place going forward. However, she said the platforms are focusing too much on media initiatives rather than actually paying media companies for their journalism.

Robert Whitehead (top left) talks Big Tech with Katharina Link, managing editor West Africa at Pulse, and Clifford Machoaka, head of external affairs and marketing at Nation Media Group.
Robert Whitehead (top left) talks Big Tech with Katharina Link, managing editor West Africa at Pulse, and Clifford Machoaka, head of external affairs and marketing at Nation Media Group.

“One of the things we have to look at is from a moral perspective,” said Clifford Mochoka, head of external affairs and marketing. “One of the key things is just being able to see that from a moral perspective, our role and mission in society is to positively impact that society with information that is truthful, inspiring, and engaging.”

When it comes to the Big Tech platforms, it’s more important than ever that they commit to sustaining and investing in journalism and media companies that are providing such content, from a moral standpoint. This is particularly vital in today’s era of fake news and misinformation.

Whitehead asked Link and Mochoka what would be on their “innovation wish list” from the Big Tech platforms.

Link responded: “First would be everything that would help us do better at storytelling and creating amazing content.” 

Up to this point, the platforms have invested heavily in tech development and innovation, but not as much into what helps the platforms increase their own business in the first place — the quality content journalism provides.

A second item Link added to her wish list was increased technology for monetisation of that content.

For Mochoka, the process of providing access to quality content that will actually reach more people is more critical than ever.

As an example, he said too often a “clickbait” article will show up on page one of search results, while true journalism is buried on page six.

“They [Big Tech] have the tools to make sure this situation is correct,” he said.

Whitehead agreed: “This is clearly an important dynamic between Big Tech and the news media companies.”

What about the role that government oversight and regulatory agencies play, Whitehead asked.

Link made the point that they needed to be leaders in this relationship between the news media and Big Tech: “What could be a great role model is seeing government institutions come in to raise their voice and power to help solve this challenge,” she said. “Conversations like the one we’re having need to happen more. What will be crucial for the next  year and beyond is to really be constructive in a sense. Taking the good blueprints we’ve seen work in other countries and seeing how they can fit into our countries and markets.”

Challenges of working with Big Tech

One challenge is Big Tech platforms are choosing which countries to roll programmes like the Google News Initiative into, Whitehead said, and are only doing so in a handful of the 200-plus countries on the planet.

Two other issues news media companies face with the platforms are third-party cookies, which are in the process of going away, and the constantly changing algorithms.

“News media need to step up to own their own first-party data,” Whitehead said. “They have to react to the demise of third-party cookies.”

As far as algorithm changes, he pointed to his home country of Australia, which demanded advance notice of all the algorithm changes. 

“Google is putting in place an initiative to recognise journalism. Quality journalism is needed more than ever, and Google has enrolled to push that through.”

In response to Australia’s demand for notice of algorithm changes, the Big Tech companies are trying to comply, Whitehead said: “It’s not legislated, but it’s coming out in practice. So news media companies around the world should start getting more advance notice of the changes.”

About Shelley Seale

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