Australian local government PR website given 'news' status by Google, Facebook


FILE PHOTO: A 3D printed Google logo is seen in this illustration taken April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Google and Facebook Inc have granted an Australian local government news provider status, drawing questions about the internet giants' efforts to curate news media.

Bundaberg Council, a regional government, told Reuters a website it runs received classification as a Google "news source", making it the country's first local government with that accreditation.

That means a council-funded website containing only public relations content gets priority in Google News searches about the agriculture hub of 100,000 people, accompanied by a "news source" tag. Bundaberg also has the country's only confirmed council-run Facebook page tagged as a "News & Media Website".

The designation shows the gaps left in the country's traditional news market as smaller publications wither and disappear. Bundaberg Council's news website says it does not publish court and crime reports, politics, "investigative journalism" or "negative stories".

"It's just another example of the way these tech giants are allowed to operate outside any accountability framework at all," said Denis Muller, an Honorary Fellow at University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism. "If they want to classify a council PR website as a news website, well, they can, and there's nothing stopping them."

Alphabet Inc's Google and Facebook are fighting an Australian federal government plan to make them pay media outlets for original content that appears on their platforms, telling a Senate inquiry that the new rules may lead them to cancel some core services in the country.

A Google representative declined to comment. A Google support page says publishers "are automatically considered for Top stories or the News tab of Search" and that "they just need to produce high-quality content and comply with Google News content policies".

In a submission to the inquiry, Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey said the new rules would "subsidise failed business models" and may have "unintended consequences, including ... damage to new media entrants and innovative publishing models such as Bundaberg Now".

Bundaberg Council's executive officer of communications, Michael Gorey, told Reuters commercial media such as state broadcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corp still provided news in the region "albeit with less coverage than several years ago".

"Commercial media have a strong focus on news such as crime, tragedies and local politics which Bundaberg Now chooses not to report," he said in an email. "Bundaberg Now seeks to fill a gap in the media market with community news, local business and events. We see no evidence of market failure in Bundaberg to warrant federal government intervention".

The City of Onkaparinga, in the country's south near Adelaide, started news website Onkaparinga Now in 2018. A representative said the council has not applied for official news provider status with Google or Facebook.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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