Independent WA publishers trampled underfoot as Facebook and government duke it out

On Thursday morning, Luke Whelan, co-founder of popular local online city guide Perth is OK, woke up to nightmarish news for his business – there was no news, on Facebook at least.

Usually updated multiple times a day with travel tips, what’s on guides and reviews of local watering holes, the Perth is OK Facebook page was silenced by the social media giant, with Mr Whelan and his team no longer able to communicate with their 150,000 followers.

Facebook’s Australian news ban threatens the viability of small independent producers reliant on the site for promotion.
Facebook’s Australian news ban threatens the viability of small independent producers reliant on the site for promotion.Credit:AP

“We were tracking really well,” Mr Whelan said. “We had our biggest traffic month ever in January with 1 million page views, which we were pretty excited about.

“This definitely disrupts that but thankfully we are not totally reliant on Facebook to drive traffic … it is a bump in the road but it is not game over.”


Perth Is OK and other independent West Australian publishers have been caught up in the battle over the federal government’s plan to make Google and Facebook pay media outlets for their news content.

Facebook’s response early on Thursday was to implement a ban on all Australian news media content, with experts warning small players were likely to burden the greatest impact if the blackout is sustained.

One media agency advised clients in a briefing note on Thursday that small publishers were likely to be hit the hardest as they relied more heavily on Facebook sending readers to their websites and on the platform as a revenue generator, with the ban making it “very difficult” for these publishers to guarantee advertisers how many people paid content would reach on social media.

Michael Douglas, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia law school and a consultant at Perth law firm Bennett + Co, said Facebook had issued a “nuclear response to what they perceived as a nuclear problem”.

“The code is good for large media organisations but it is not as good for smaller publishers that rely on these social media services,” Mr Douglas said.

Edith Cowan University digital journalism lecturer Dr Laura Glitsos said the “specific and deliberate flex” from Facebook should not have swept up smaller publishers, including the university’s student news website.

“There is a lot of confusion around who should be included in this stoush between the government, the massive news organisations and the social media giants,” Dr Glitsos said.

“I woke up and saw the Facebook I had attached to the [ECU news] platform had been completely wiped of all of its posts. We don’t want to be involved in the stoushes with the big boys, we don’t need to be involved, we aren’t going to get anything out of it.

“Admittedly Facebook is frustrated and I understand that point of view because they do provide us a service but they are punishing the smaller platforms so that all of these smaller voices put pressure on the government.

“I think it is a really unfair way to do it … and it is irresponsible because smaller publications often showcase marginal voices or serve certain communities.”

Ivan Leung is the founder and editor of the West Australasian Media Network (WAMN), which provides a growing audience of predominantly younger West Australians with breaking political news. Since it launched locally in 2013, it has used Facebook to live stream video news and its weekly bulletin.

During Perth’s recent five-day COVID-19 lockdown, Mr Leung said WAMN reached 622,000 people with its news updates. If Facebook’s news ban is sustained, Mr Leung said WAMN would find ways to adapt to survive but would need to invest significantly in diversification.

“Facebook and the government are two Godzillas fighting each other and we are the buildings below their feet,” Mr Leung said.

“The biggest hit to us is the traffic numbers … we can continue distributing our content on other channels but obviously when it comes to numbers we have to start from scratch.

“If it removed the ban, we would continue to use Facebook because we need to reach out to our audience, we have an obligation to. But this is a big wake-up call to everybody.”

Mr Leung said WAMN would put more energy into its other channels – YouTube and Twitter – and continue to try and drive organic traffic to its website.

Perth is OK’s Mr Whelan said about 25 per cent of visitors to its website came from Facebook, with the majority, about 50 per cent, coming from Google.

It’s a similar story for the So Perth website, which counts Facebook as its second-largest traffic source after Google.

Both sites said their major concern was finding ways to continue to service their clients, which pay for editorial content or place advertisements.

Mr Whelan said Perth is OK’s clients had been understanding as the site worked to find alternative solutions.

“[Facebook] haven’t taken away the paid feature, which is quite ironic,” Mr Whelan said. “They are more than happy to take our money still at Facebook but they won’t let us use the pages we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building and curating.”

So Perth founder Adam Barrell said if the blackout was sustained it would be “quite detrimental to us and negatively impact our business capability under the current business strategy we have”.

“If it was to remain as-is, we would have to look at other ways to drive revenue,” Mr Barrell said.

“The whole [government media] code was meant to be fostering a more diverse and stronger news media in Australia but this has happened as a result, and it definitely makes things harder for us not easier … it is to the detriment of the whole media landscape in Australia.

“There is a mutual benefit between Facebook getting our content and us getting engagement, but we definitely benefit more from it than Facebook does.

“It allows us to tap into an ecosystem that has already been built … people are time poor and they like that Facebook and Instagram can serve up content in a stream form for them to engage with. People don’t know what they are looking for until they find it on social and Facebook was obviously very good at doing that.

“Sites like ours need that and the community needs us … we may be small but we have grown up here, we are localised and we have built our following from scratch in Perth.

“We have lived it and we are here to champion the best of Perth … the diversity we offer and sense of community we champion is important.”

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