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
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.
That was essentially the ambition behind Postmedia’s “Product 2.0” strategy, which saw us launch four different products on four different platforms. It’s the underlying premise of the La Presse tablet strategy, the same strategy recently abandoned by The Toronto Star. It’s also, in many ways, the background hope of the Public Policy Forum’s recent report The Shattered Mirror, which explores ways the government might support the news media.
At the core of it all is the question of publishing. Publishing is, literally, the business end of journalism, it is where the creation of journalism gets turned into money. Not every journalism outfit is a publishing outfit (wire services are a notable exception), but by and large, publishing has been the profit engine of journalism. And a great deal of the intellectual energy and restructuring gyrations of news organisations over the past while has been devoted to restoring the primacy of publishing to the journalism business model.
The problem is that even as news media were trying to save their publishing business, they were transforming their products and entering into deals that have involved abandoning publishing as the core business of journalism.
And so we come to a new report from the Tow Center, written by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen, entitled The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism, which is essentially one long answer to the question, “What happens when news media turn the business of publishing over to Platforms?”
“The Platform Press” is a horror story. It’s about a group of overconfident naifs who stumbled into a relationship with a Great Guy who was rich, young, and cool, and who pinky swore he had their best interests at heart. But then the Great Guy turns into a monster, ruining their relationships, destroying their reputations, and generally wreaking havoc across the land, all while grinning his laddish grin and wondering what everyone’s all upset about.
The naifs are the news media of course, and the monster are the Platforms. Though to be more specific, it’s not really about the Platforms, but about one Platform in particular, Facebook, and how it is almost singlehandedly destroying both the business model, and civic function, of journalism.
Here’s the issue in a nutshell: With legacy businesses in terminal decline, and digital revenues from their proprietary sites stagnating and insufficient regardless, media organisations over the past few years have turned to Platforms such as Google, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter to host and distribute their content. What this has meant is that, to varying degrees, they have turned over their control over the publication, marketing, branding, audience development and monetization to third parties, all in search of bigger audiences and the marginal revenue gains that were on offer.
As this report makes clear, at least when it comes to Facebook, this has been a deal with the Devil. The reason is that to its core, Facebook’s interests are utterly opposed to those of the traditional news media. Or to be more specific: Facebook’s interests are at odds with those news media who are interested in making money, controlling their product, defending their reputation, and doing work that is at least occasionally in the public interest.
In the Facebook ecosystem, Scale is Everything. And what drives Scale is Shareability. And so the only currency that matters on Facebook, the only criterion by which the worth of a post is judged, is whether someone is likely to share it.
The consequences of this are far reaching. First, it means that “quality” doesn’t matter. Related, it means that “accuracy” doesn’t matter. More to the point, it means that “truth” doesn’t matter, nor does “independence” or “public interest”.
Second, it means that Facebook has an overwhelming interest in showing you only stuff that you like, that accords with your worldview or that of your friends. Because it wants you to share it, and people tend to share stuff that confirms their pre-existing biases.
The upshot is that Facebook’s entire model involves showing you a) crap that b) you are likely to share. Or as the authors of “The Platform Press” put it, more diplomatically, “good reporting is not algorithmically privileged.”
This is actually far more worrisome than it looks. Facebook was rightly taken to task after the last presidential election for its role in helping promulgate “fake news.” But fake news is just one aspect of the much bigger problem, which is that to its very core, Facebook’s algorithm has no incentive to distinguish between real news and fake news, good journalism and clickbait, independent reporting and sponsored content.
Again from the report: “The same financial system that incentivizes low-quality, sensational, or made-up pages in exactly the same way it incentivizes serious reporting is only going to find itself overrun by the former.”
It’s Gresham’s law applied to journalism, in full force: Bad news will drive out good, with a vengeance.
Traditional publishers are impaled on the horns of a dilemma: On the one horn, they can opt out of the Platform system, and retain control over their content, its production, distribution, marketing, and monetization. The downside for most publishers is that the monetization piece is becoming almost impossible. Independence comes at the cost of having a viable business.
So the other horn is: opt in to the Platform system, and cede almost all control over your content. Every aspect of journalism, from the assigning level on up, becomes shaped and distorted by the need to fit the demands of the platform — its story forms, its display, its ad modules, and most importantly, its algorithms. The upside is, maybe — maybe — there’s an audience to be reached and some money to be made.
A very small number of players will be able to choose the first horn and go their own way. The New York Times seems to be scratching its way there, the WaPo maybe as well, and a few others.
But for most publishers, this isn’t an option. The math of digital publishing was never great for independent, stand-alone publishers, and it has only gotten worse. The old line about “trading print dollars for digital dimes” is a joke, because most publishers would kill to be getting ten cents on the print dollar for their digital publications.
And so we are headed for a world where, for the most part, publishing is no longer the central business of most news organisations. And unless something drastic changes, this means the end of most local news in mid-size or smaller markets. But as the report goes on to argue,
in the unlikely event platforms do create a really viable economic model for journalism within their own ecosystems, what then? The case for independence becomes more difficult to make on a financial basis, but might still remain a civic concern.
That is, a world where Facebook is the publisher of record is not a world where public-interest journalism is likely to find a place.
What it comes down to is the question of trust. The biggest problem with the Platform ecosystem is that all content is treated the same. There is no mechanism for distinguishing between, and then privileging, content that is high quality and downgrading that which is low-quality.
What’s great about this analysis is that it shows why one common answer to the fake news problem (“we just need to keep doing good journalism”) is so misguided. Fake news is just one version of the more general problem, which is that the only arbiter of value is shareability and how it plays in the algorithm. Good journalism is a sucker’s game.
And so, while Facebook has very reluctantly finally admitted that it is in the publishing business, that’s a worthless concession as long as it abdicates all the responsibilities of a publisher. As Bell and Owen point out, Facebook’s corporate ideology (decentralized, individualized production) as well as its business model militate against good journalism. In the Facebook ecosystem, there is literally nothing to be gained by investing in quality content.
Their conclusion is devastating:
If Facebook is going to function as the new social arbiter of trust, replacing a role journalism has, however imperfectly, long served, then they will need to both counter the spread of misinformation and encourage the spread of journalism based in fact. They will simply need to begin making editorial decisions.
It’s bad enough that Facebook is turning into something close to a publishing monopoly. Wait until it’s also an effective editorial monopoly.
Is there a way around this? Are there any viable alternatives to the Platform horror show?
Possibly. That’s my next post.