Why Facebook is the Devil: Platforms, publishing, and the public good

Prologue

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace — John Perry Barlow, 1996

I.

You all know the line about generals always preparing to fight the last war. News media execs, and many academics and media critics, on the other hand, have spent the better part of the last two decades fighting the current war while trying to figure out a way of getting everyone to agree to return to the terms of the old. That is, a good decade after it became clear that the math for digital publishing was never going to work, there are still a lot of publishers, aided by a sizeable scholarly industry, who are devoted to finding some way of rolling back the clock on the business model.… Continue reading

Why it is a problem when journalists jump into politics

When columnist Michael Den Tandt announced this week that he was joining the PMO, just a a few weeks after he resigned as a political columnist for Postmedia, there was a fair amount of chatter in the usual places about the bad optics of the move, what we could conclude about his work and about the profession as a whole, and whether, in this economy, this is the sort of thing we should have any scruples about.

Some throat clearing:

a) I worked at Postmedia with Den Tandt, and though I never met him we did have a few exchanges. I thought he was a very strong columnist, and think his departure from Postmedia is a loss for the company and the profession.

b) This is a bigger issue than Den Tandt regardless. Lots of journalists have jumped to the Liberals, just as a lot jumped to the Tories when they were in power. Continue reading

Canadian Exceptionalism: The very idea

Has liberty moved north? Is Canada the last immigrant nation left standing?  Are we a bright light on a dark political stage?

The notion of “Canadian Exceptionalism” predates Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the pretensions of Kellie Leitch. It goes back at least to 2012, when the Berkeley professor Irene Bloemraad published an article entitled Understanding ‘Canadian Exceptionalism’ in Immigration and Pluralism Policy, which juxtatposed “the widespread and increasing support of immigration among Canadian citizens with growing anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to multicultural policies across Europe and the United States.” And our own Joe Heath has been workshopping a talk for a while now building on Bloemraad’s work.

So it’s not a new idea. But the basic thesis — that Canada seems to be unique in having built a stable, immigrant-driven multicultural society — has become more prevalent in the Trump/Brexit era, finding proponents both domestic and foreign.Continue reading

How to help the news media

The centerpiece proposal from the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, is to change the tax code to charge companies who want to advertise in Google and Facebook a ten percent levy, and then funnel that money into a fund that will be used to pay for digital journalism, as dispensed by an arms-length federal body.

This is one of those ideas that is high-minded, well-intentioned, and looks worse and worse the more I think about it.

There are fairness issues: why target, and punish, Canadian companies who do international digital business, and need to advertise on Google or Facebook to reach those audiences? How is the failure of the news media their problem to solve?

There are accountability issues: It is one thing to use taxpayer dollars to fund arms length institutions like NSERC or the CBC. There is at least in these cases a chain of accountability from the taxpayer to a minister to whom the institution is responsible, and who is in turn responsible to parliament.… Continue reading

How not to help the news media

The Public Policy Forum released its long-awaited (well, by news nerds and journalists, anyway) report on the news media, its challenges, and possible solutions. It’s called The Shattered Mirror, and you can download it here. 

The report is a thorough account of the current state of the industry, how and why it got to where it is, and the problems and challenges it faces. It’s also really long, but it’s well-written, has a nice tabloidy-design and it’s a pretty good read by the standards of these sorts of reports. The first three sections – diagnosing the problem and reporting on the feedback they received — should be mandatory reading for all journalism students wondering what they are getting in to, and for all working journalists wondering why management is cutting newsroom staff yet again.

But the PPF’s mandate (the report was commissioned by the federal government) was not simply to describe the problem.… Continue reading

Three thoughts on Kevin O’Leary

The newspapers today are loaded with stories suggesting that Kevin O’Leary is now the front-runner for the Conservative party leadership. For all the reasons outlined by Andrew Coyne, I don’t think it will happen. Not because Canada is necessarily morally exceptional (something we’ll be debating here at MISC next month) but because the systemic barriers are bigger here. It’s just harder to take over the Conservatives than it was for Trump to take over the GOP.

But since you never know what might happen, I think it’s worth making a few points about his candidacy.

1. Bilingualism

Whether it was craftiness or cowardice , O’Leary’s decision to enter the race the morning after the french-language debate was clearly deliberately timed. And didn’t we all spend yesterday talking about him? Combined with Justin Trudeau’s brain cramp in Sherbrooke, it raised once again the question of official bilingualism and whether one “has” to be bilingual to lead a major political party in this country.… Continue reading

The Dion in Winter

Stephane Dion has left the federal cabinet and quit politics. It obviously wasn’t a voluntary departure, but he managed to give a gracious enough statement. He obviously still wants to be a public servant, and in public life. Where that will be remains to be seen — word is that he was offered some sort of ambassadorship, but is taking time to stew think it over.

His departure was inevitable. As Paul Wells reminds us, the antagonism between Dion and Trudeau goes back aways. He wasn’t a very good foreign affairs minister, and his attempt to formulate some sort of Weberian doctrine to justify the shit-eating that goes along with the job was pathetic.

And before that, Dion was the Liberal leader who led the party to its worst showing since 1867, until whatshisname who replaced him did even worse.

But before that, he was Stephane Dion, the scourge of Quebec sovereigntists, the architect of the Clarity Act, the federalist Sun Tzu who showed Ottawa how to take the fight to the separatists.… Continue reading

Deinstitutionalisation: The new crisis for journalism Part I

1.

As far as the mainstream media is concerned, 2016 will be remembered as the year that the the print media ran out of runway, as the transition-to-digital bluff was called. There is no serious digital business model to speak of for online publishing – the recent round of mass layoffs at Medium only underscoring that even the digital-only ad-supported initiatives are a fool’s errand.

What should be done? For a while now, my view has been the same as Ken Whyte’s — we should do nothing. And that is pretty much the view I expressed at two of the seminars run by the Public Policy Forum as part of their initiative to determine if the decline of the news media is a problem, and if so, what should be done about it. My answers have been: Yes it’s a problem, and there’s not much to be done until the convulsions have ended.… Continue reading

The age of anti-consumerism has passed

It took the butt-ugly advertising wrap around my morning newspaper to remind me that tomorrow is Black Friday, supposedly the biggest shopping day of the year. You know, the day when Americans stampede one another to get into Walmart and pull guns on one another in the flat screen TV aisle of Best Buy.

It wasn’t so long ago that Black Friday, and the anti-consumerist hysteria that surrounded it, was one of the biggest days on the culture jammer’s calendar. Because that was also the day that Adbusters magazine sponsored Buy Nothing Day. That is the day when anti-consumerism activists try to “jam” the shoppers by cutting up credit cards, engaging in sit-ins, riding their bikes, participating in zombie walks or critical mass rides, and so on. The point is to not buy anything, while drawing attention to the grossness of those who are.

We had a lot of fun with BND in The Rebel Sell.… Continue reading

Newsonomics: The steep hill of scale

A couple of years ago, after trying and failing at a free ad-supported business model and flirting with pay walls that brought in negligible revenue, a number of news publishers started to come around to the idea of scale. When it comes to monetizing an audience, it’s go big or go home.

And there is certainly a lot to be said for scale, since it appears to be the only way of making any real money selling journalism online. Big players like BuzzFeed, HuffPost, an Business Insider, even medium sized ones like Gawker, all make money by funneling colossal amounts of traffic into a hopper. Out the other end squeezes a non-colossal amount of revenue, which is used to pay for a handful of journalists.

It’s not a great business model, but it is pretty much the only one on offer right now. Which is why Postmedia — as it prepares to downsize yet again — appears to be moving into the digital-scale business.… Continue reading