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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

Tech giants show local news support, but there’s a catch

by Peter Weinberger | pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

There are many areas of publishing where tech giants like Facebook and Google help support local news coverage. They have invested, via grants, millions of dollars to start ups and established small media companies like the COURIER—Google gave us an $8,000 grant through a local news initiative—to not only to help get them through the pandemic, but to support new small businesses. Their help is very much appreciated.

But what is the real motivation behind the proactive overtures these tech giants are making toward local news in the first place? It’s important to understand that Google or Facebook, YouTube, even Apple, do not have a staff of journalists, photographers, editors, videographers or anyone who creates written and visual content for publication. They are technology driven, not news driven.  

Make no mistake, news is a commodity and media companies are tech customers. Facebook, for example, can deliver us new customers by leveraging their incredible pool of users. If the COURIER wants to double viewership of a story, using social media is an option we must choose. And pay for.

In other words, these tech giants own the digital distribution channels to reach readers. If a company wants to increase digital readership, at some point they will end up—paying up.

Yes, it’s possible to do all this on your own. There are many techniques, including pop-up notifications, using strong wording and metadata on your website, partnering and promoting stories, creating events and more. But building a new customer base is a very slow process, especially for local news businesses.

And it’s only getting harder since the COURIER is squeezed more every year when big tech reduces the number of viewers who see our content naturally. An example is our aerial videos. A video of Mt. Baldy three years ago would naturally reach over 30,000 viewers just by being posted on our Facebook page. That same video today would fetch around 10,000 viewers. The main reason for the change is that Facebook has adjusted how users initially see our content. Since it’s harder to get out of the gate, the total numbers drop.

Unfortunately, that’s not even the worst of it. When we post stories and visuals on our own website, or on Facebook and YouTube page (COURIER Aerial Imagery has over 1,700 subscribers), we release our content on the World Wide Web. Most of us use search engines like Google or Bing to find information on the internet. With Google, you can even sign up for Google Alerts, which will notify you when content in certain areas or topics is produced. 

Users who type in “Claremont COURIER” are sent direct links with our headlines (see photo). The COURIER gets credit, but the links come from Google. They own the distribution channels, so it’s easy to brand our content as their own. When we post photos on our Facebook page, they could also appear on a newsfeed supported by Facebook. Why go to the COURIER website when you can get it emailed to your personalized newsfeed?

This form of borrowing (I’m being nice) was considered unauthorized use before the internet. If another publication wanted to reprint a story or publish a photo, they had to pay for it. But with literally thousands of newsfeeds out there, this form of borrowing has become commonplace. And of course, it’s local news companies that get hurt the most. We could have a story go viral, seen by millions connected by newsfeeds, and the COURIER would receive nothing.

Local news would not be in such sorry shape as an industry if the tech giants would actually pay for the content they use. They do in Australia. Novel concept!

This is why I circle back to the beginning by again stating that I’m appreciative of the help these tech companies have given us. But when the COURIER receives zero cents on the dollar when big tech makes millions from local news content, something is very wrong. So we play by their rules in an effort to survive.

The COURIER is lucky. We have tremendous support from the Claremont community. But that dynamic doesn’t exist in every town and city. Which is what drives our efforts to reach readers in new and pragmatic ways. Welcome to Claremont COURIER 2.0.

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