Best enemies

Emily Bell
Member of the Advisory Board for Media Technology and Innovation
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From useful multipliers to annoying profiteers: Social media platforms have become a threat to publishers. About the challenges of dealing with tech giants like Google and Facebook.

The convergence between social platforms and publishers has been a long and slow process of osmosis, but it in the past five years it has been accelerated and deliberate. The radical change in how news organisations reach audiences has left many traditional and independent news publishers wondering if the relationship between their businesses and those of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other technology giants is in fact both toxic and doomed.

In January 2015 the messaging app for teenagers, Snapchat, launched a new service called Snapchat Discover. The app featured recognized publishers, including established brands like Cosmopolitan, the Daily Mail, National Geographic and Vice, but there was no link back to the publishers’ sites, just a series of slick and glossy versions of their articles but commissioned, published and monetised entirely within the platform. Although the messaging app was barely used by anyone over the age of 21, the launch of Discover set off alarm bells in publishing houses and in Snapchat’s Silicon Valley rivals.

Overnight publishers went from having to worry about social platforms as vectors for traffic to thinking about them as re-publishers of their own work. A senior Facebook executive at the time showed me the relatively unremarkable Snapchat page, ‘this is what keeps me up at night’ he said. Soon it became apparent why. The level of both page views and engagement - time spent within a particular app - were rocketing on Snapchat among the younger demographic. Publishers were clamouring to join the Snapchat experiment and competitors like Facebook and Apple were rolling out their own rival products.

News organisations have watched with growing alarm as Facebook and Google have consumed the vast majority of mobile digital advertising spend.

Within a year Facebook had launched Instant Articles, Google had produced Accelerated Mobile Pages, Apple had launched Apple News and even Twitter had produced an aggregated offering called ‘Moments’. Google also launched the Digital News Initiative within Europe, a kind of innovation fund for news organisations that would give hundreds of millions of Euros to individual projects aimed at finding new support models for journalism.

At the time, it was considered novel to think of technology platforms and journalism to be in any kind of relationship with each other, let alone one of such complexity. However, four years later this central paradox in our communications landscape, that the gatekeepers to information and discourse do not have civic or journalistic values embedded in their products,dominates both debates about the future of journalism - and the future of civil society.

The landscape in 2019 looks very different. First of all, the large digital platform companies, Facebook Google, Twitter, Apple et al, are an even greater economic and social force. Both Google and Facebook are now roughly twice the size in terms of market capitalisation than they were five years ago. Their roles have changed too; smartphones are our window on the world, and social and search apps spend more time with us than our family members and consequently often know more about us. Other news platforms such as Apple News in the US have started to develop subscription tools and models, many of which offer extremely poor terms to publishers.

News organisations have watched with growing alarm and helplessness as Facebook and Google have consumed the vast majority of mobile digital advertising spend, and their engagement with all the journalism teams and new publishing offerings at the technology companies have not stopped a decline in advertising revenues and significant job losses in digitally native companies such as Mic, Vice, Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Most information reaches the end user via social media: Tamedia employee Lea Koch.

We also know that there are much wider civic issues with the concentration of power and data; through scandals like the Cambridge Analytica data leaks, continuing problems with conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, and the misuse of WhatsApp (a Facebook owned messaging app) to spread misinformation in politically volatile places like Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The dilemma for news organisations is acute: can journalism organisations really work with companies that are politically influential, often collaborative with governments that despise the free press and that represent a civic threat to them?

Google and Facebook still represent huge sources of traffic referral to many publishers, and at the local level for instance in the US the direct subsidies now being offered by both Google and Facebook are increasingly important. Apple News has 90 million users a month, and many editorial teams spend their time talking to the editors at Apple news about which stories will perform well and what to pitch to the platform. Through our research at the Tow Center at Columbia Journalism School into newsroom and their relationships with platforms, we see little sign that publishers are able to live completely independently of platforms.

However, there is hope. Publishers like the Washington Post, the New York Times and The Guardian have all seen positive results from subscription and membership schemes. After the scandals of 2017 and 2018 affecting the technology platforms, many publishers are more realistic about balancing their relationships with platform companies. It is undoubtedly the case that most news understand that working with tech platforms is a necessary evil, but surrendering all control to them is highly undesirable.

Both Facebook and Google are now directly subsidising local news programs in the US to the amount of $600 million over the next three years.

When companies such as BuzzFeed built their businesses entirely on social platforms but then find they cannot scale their own businesses in a way that matches investor expectations, it is a clear sign that the social media platforms do not really care about the health of the journalism they circulate. More problematic though than building a business model on social media, is the potential influence this close relationship has on coverage.

Both Facebook and Google are now directly subsidising local news programs in the US to the amount of $600 million over the next three years. How will the local news reporter whose salary is partly paid by Google investigate the purchase of regional land by the company under a shell corporation name? How will they view self-driving cars or software contracts with local schools and hospitals? What will the local newsroom which has received a generous grant from Facebook do about a bullying scandal involving Facebook groups at the local school, or the abuse of Instagram by unscrupulous advertisers?

The relationship between large multinational companies that both work with governments and make money from the surveillance economy and journalism is already uncomfortably close. Governments and regulators need to bear in mind where the support for journalism comes from when they are thinking about how to regulate such entities in the current landscape. For local publishers, the grim reality is rather different, Google and Facebook currently represent one very thin lifeline. The platitude ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’ has never been more true.

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