Why NUJ and Newsguild took different approach to big tech news payments

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In September the leaders of 15 journalist union chapters wrote to the US Senate Judiciary Committee “with concern” about a law aiming to force big tech to pay news publishers for their content.

The Newsguild leaders said they had “no confidence” that the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act making its way through Congress would benefit journalists.

“You must apply basic scrutiny to your employers while you seek to hold big tech accountable,” they wrote, in one of several interventions the union made over the legislation last year.

[Read more: The updated Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) bill, explained]

In the UK, in contrast, the National Union of Journalists has been largely shtum on the forthcoming Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, which similarly will seek to force Google and Facebook to pay for news content on their sites.

Shortly after the pandemic kicked off the NUJ did publish a News Recovery Plan, which it proposed to fund partly through “an urgent windfall tax on the tech giants whose platforms suck up editorial content without making any contribution to its production”. But its public statements on Duopoly legislation since then have been rare.

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[Read more: UK reveals plans to force Google and Meta to pay for news]

Both unions want to protect journalists’ jobs, and both have made positive noises about compelling big tech to pay for them – so why have they taken such different public approaches to the legislation?

The cutting hedge

Jon Schleuss, the president of the Newsguild, pointed out that the media ownership picture looks different in the US and UK.

“Our qualms with the JCPA were that it needed to tie money to jobs. In the States we’ve got a lot of private equity and hedge funds buying up and controlling a lot of newsrooms,” he told Press Gazette.

Schleuss cited organisations like Alden Global Capital, which owns the Tribune Publishing newspapers, Chatham Asset Management, which owns the McClatchy chain, and publicly-traded local publishing giant Gannett, which also runs Newsquest in the UK.

“They just extract cash. And so they see newsrooms with a lot of assets where they can cut. So like – ‘Oh, there’s real estate’… they sell the real estate and often pocket the money.”

The three owners, Alden in particular, have been repeatedly accused by US journalists of “gutting” newsrooms for profit (or, in Gannett’s case, to service its large debts).

“From our perspective, the way the JCPA is structured is it’s a collective bargaining code,” Schleuss said. “So it gives companies and publishers – the boss – basically the ability to come together and violate what are current antitrust laws to collude to negotiate against Google and Facebook.

“And at the same time they want these collective bargaining rights, they are refusing to bargain with scores and scores – I mean thousands and thousands – of journalists who have unionised in the States in the last few years.”

But rather than perceived hypocrisy, Schleuss said the Newsguild’s main problem with the JCPA was, in its current draft, it does not compel newsroom owners to invest big tech funds back into journalism. The Newsguild has been lobbying for a version of the law that ensures at least 70% of the funds received go to job creation and retention.

“And so that was our big sticking point. We weren’t opposed to the final [JCPA] legislation – we were just like: this needs to improve. And we had actually gotten to a place where it was improved in the House version, but again, this version… I don’t know if it’ll see the light of day,” he added, speaking after the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the mid-terms.

Is the UK media that different from the US?

In contrast to the US, most UK newsrooms are owned by for-profit businesses, including Gannett which owns numerous local newspapers in the UK through Newsquest and its newly-acquired subsidiary Archant. Did Schleuss think UK owners were more likely to reinvest the hoped-for big tech money into journalism?

“I think that with hedge funds in particular, there’s so much shadowy behaviour that’s allowed in the States right now – where, you know, they can keep all of their assets overseas if they want to.

“I mean, the majority of the assets for a lot of these hedge funds are kept in the Cayman Islands, which is, frankly, I think, a national security risk too, right? Who’s actually funding this hedge fund that has been going through and systematically destroying news? News is the fundamental premise that supports democratic forms of government, right?”

Press Gazette approached Alden, Chatham and Gannett for comment for this article. The only organisation to respond on the record was Alden.

Guy Gilmore, chief operating officer of subsidiaries Medianews Group and Tribune Publishing, said: “It’s unfortunate when unions disparage the work of their own members and their employers in an effort to seek negotiating leverage, given the reality is that our newspapers provide high-quality coverage of critical issues important to the local communities we serve – especially given the undisputed fact that big tech companies have fundamentally undermined the business model for news, exploiting publishers by distributing their journalism without paying for it and building their advertising business on content they did not create.”

The Newsguild has not been the only journalists’ union internationally to express concern about news payment legislation.

Martin O’Hanlon, the president of Canadian media union CWA Canada, said in June that the country’s Online News Act, which is currently making its way through the Ottawa’s parliament, lacks adequate provisions to “ensure quality journalism by maintaining decent staffing levels”, “guarantee no layoffs if they make a profit” or “limit executive compensation and payments to owners”.

[Read more: Canada’s Online News Act will force Google and Facebook to pay out $329.2m a year, parliamentary report finds]

Australia’s Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance in August published a briefing reviewing how the country’s already-implemented mandatory bargaining code had been working in practice.

The union acknowledged “the injection of funds that have flowed into the Australian media sector since the Code’s commencement in 2021”, but said there had problems around transparency and the inclusion of small news organisations.

In particular, it also remained “unclear how code-generated funds are being used. This is a serious deficiency in the code’s operation.” (An exception was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which said it had created around 50 new regional roles with the funds.)

[Read more: Support for Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code grows as 24 publishing minnows secure Google deals]

The NUJ’s view

Press Gazette understands the NUJ sees itself as aligned with Newsguild on getting big tech to pay for news content. But asked whether the NUJ shared the Newsguild’s concerns about that pay not being reinvested in newsrooms, the union was less strident than its international comrades.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said in a statement: “The NUJ has long called for an enforceable, mandatory requirement on tech giants to contribute towards the production of content featured on platforms…

“The union’s well-received News Recovery Plan calls for a reconfiguring of this vital sector, one that prioritises frontline journalism and news and its role in the spectrum of essential public services. This includes the urgent need for investment in quality jobs and training, alongside innovation across the industry, with significant funding drawn from a levy and ongoing tax of the tech platforms.

“The NUJ is also clear that any new investment – which should be available to the whole sector, not just traditional players – is based on a principle of conditionality and transparency, and aligned to standards including collective bargaining rights and fair treatment of freelances.”

The NUJ may develop its thinking on the issue over time, as the British union and the Newsguild do collaborate to a limited extent. As Schleuss told Press Gazette: “I love Michelle Stanistreet.”

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