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Why we can’t wait for regulation

Despite rumblings from various regulatory authorities, any change is likely to be slow in coming, and no one is sure just how effective it will be. In short, with time running out as AI barrels towards us, there is a need for the publishing industry to stand up to the big tech platforms and not wait for regulation. Jeremy Clifford lays it all out…

Last week more than 200 people from the UK media industry attended the media reception held by the all-party Parliamentary Media Group.

It may not seem that inspiring but stick with me.

Speakers from the DCMS, Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority all spoke about the value of journalism to democracy and its critical role in holding power to account, protecting freedoms and providing the watchdog for public accountability.

All worthy missions and one we as journalists hold central to our profession.

And they all spoke of the efforts they are making to ensure fair play, fair competition and a fair playing field on which we can operate.

However, we all know that we don’t have fair play, there is not fair competition and it certainly isn’t a fair playing field. Which is why all three organisations also spoke about the regulation that is coming down the line, they say will help to protect journalism and unlock competition.

But it isn’t coming soon enough and meanwhile the industry is haemorrhaging jobs, there is an exodus of expertise from the profession and competition and innovation is stifled.

Press Gazette reported last week more than 7,900 journalism industry jobs were lost from media companies in the UK, US and Canada in 2023 – and these were counted from just the larger media companies. (Note these were not limited to editorial job losses).

And already in 2024, we have seen job cut announcements by US magazine Dotdash Meredith, Smartnews in Tokyo, and Vox Media

Copyright legal frameworks

As Owen Meredith, CEO, of the News Media Association, said in his response to the Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s report into Large Language Models: “Content creators and rights holders devote significant time and effort and resources to their work, and our copyright laws rightly protect their interests, creating wider economic, political and social benefits as they do so.

“Yet as AI technologies advance, so we must ensure our legal framework remains effective. For news brands who invest so heavily in their journalism, their content must not be used without transparency, consent, and fair remuneration. As the Committee recommends, we hope the government will support content creators by making clear the applicability of copyright law and setting out legislative options for future proofing our robust copyright regime if necessary.“

He also said this last year: “It is the unbridled control that Big Tech holds over the UK’s digital economy that is blocking start-ups from innovating, holding back the growth of challenger firms, and locking businesses, such as news publishers, into unfair commercial relationships.”

And representing the indie sector, Jonathan Heawood, chief executive of the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF), has said about the Digital Market Bill that the small publishers his organisation focuses on would benefit markedly from the legislation and “actually get what we think they deserve”.

The Digital Markets Bill will provide a regulatory framework for firms deemed to have Strategic Market Status – such as the big tech platforms – and will enforce conduct requirements to prevent anti-competitive practice, promote fair trading and trust and transparency – long seen by the media sector as being restricted by the nature of digital competition.

However, waiting for regulation is not the answer.

The point is that the glacial nature of regulation is stifling those in the media who want to innovate.

Time to be bold

Only last week, I delivered a workshop to a big regional publisher and urged them to be bold. To stop thinking about tweaking their content strategies but take some big decisive and pivotal steps because we continue to fiddle while Rome burns.

Having been an editor of three regional titles and run the editorial functions of two of the largest publishing organisations in the UK, I have seen first hand the reluctance of media companies to make these bold moves. They are restricted by the economic pressures on their business and short-sighted profit returns which means they will seldom take the sort of risks necessary to radically change the way they produce and distribute news. Although we have seen digital transformations, we are still essentially churning out the same type and volume of content we have always done, while audiences are becoming increasingly discerning and sophisticated in how they choose to consume information – and when to pay for it.

And it is this unequal playing field that undermines innovation. We haven’t even mentioned the role the BBC plays in what many publishers believe is distorting the market with its expansion into local news areas – funding it by scaling back their local radio offering.

However, the point I am getting to is that if we continue to wait for the likes of the Digital Markets Bill to gain Royal Assent – and then the rounds of consultation that will then follow….

If we continue to wait for the Media Bill, which repeals Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, that will force “unregulated” publishers to pay both sides’ libel case legal costs even if they win – and so imposes a chilling effect on investigative journalism….

If we continue to wait for the endless Government  inquiries into the sustainability of journalism to implement any meaningful recommendations, then this industry as we know it will be beyond repair.

And that’s before we even start to consider how long it will be for copyright to be protected from the juggernauts of the Generative AI world.

No, my belief is that the industry has to own its problems and own the solution, while waiting for legislation and regulation to catch up and to help it out.

The importance of collaboration

But we are so poor at collaboration. We still see each other as rivals. We seem unable to work together to present a united front to bolster our bargaining position with the big platforms. As someone pithily described the situation, individually, we are like ants fighting elephants.

As an industry, surely we are the bigger elephant worldwide? All that really stands between us and a vibrant digital media sector is finding common cause – and it is staring us in the face.

We have a healthy independent news sector, we actually have a healthy corporate news sector in terms of the huge audiences they deliver, and we have the potential to present a united front if only we could understand how to do that and to appreciate that our big competitors are not the news sites in our backyard.

So how do we find a way to work together? Who can become the standard bearers for our industry? How do we align former rivals as allies?

Surely the time is long overdue for the CEOs to stop hiding behind their profit margins and bottom lines and face up to a future that working as an industry, which means wrapping a supportive arm around the indie sector as well, is the only true way to provide a sustainable future for journalism.

It is probably literally now or never for this alliance to come together before the wave of AI sinks the final nail in the journalism coffin.

Jeremy Clifford
Founding Director, Chrysalis Transformations

Jeremy Clifford is the founding director of Chrysalis Transformations, a digital change management consultancy which offers leadership development and coaching. He is an experienced journalist having run the editorial functions of two of the UK’s biggest regional publishers, and now also co-runs an AI consultancy and training partnership, the AI-Collective.

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