Mobile devices and social media are set to revolutionise how we consume news. Facebook changed the game with its Instant Article feature. Linkedin developed its own news strategy. Blendle boasts of its super-smart newsletter system. And following last week’s announcement of Apple’s News app, we could see a swift rise in mobile and social news popularity.
It’s pretty clear. journalism has a new, modern identity. We’re now in a new phase of altering the news ecosystem and reshuffling the layers between content producers and consumers. This has sparked debate in the media world: Is there a clear and present danger for publishers turning over keys to a cluster of gatekeepers? Will they reap decisive gains for their business model. What will they gain or lose in the process?
Emily Bell, Director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism, answers such questions and broadly, what this redistribution age means for journalism.
1) Who controls the pathways to the audience?
If BuzzFeed is correct in its strategic direction (and it is already being emulated by many legacy news organisations), then the control of pathways to audiences no longer lies with the organisations which publish news but with the platforms that carry it. In my 2014 Reuters Memorial Lecture, I outlined this new relationship between the social media companies born in Silicon Valley and news publishers and journalists as creating a new paradigm. The free press is now controlled by companies whose primary interests are not necessarily rooted in strengthening public discourse and democracy. On the one hand, journalists can reach far greater audiences immediately than was the case in the past. On the other hand, journalists and publishers have very little control now over how information reaches the world and there is limited transparency.
Facebook does not see itself as a publisher, it only sees itself as a platform. But once Facebook is the world’s front page, publishing responsibilities begin to attach themselves to the company. The most clear example of this is the process by which Facebook decides which news to feature in the feeds of its users. If it only features news which is recommended by friends and family, then Facebook’s users might miss an important event. Does the Facebook news algorithm take into account other factors, like how recently the news happened? Does it worry about whether the stories that its users are spreading are true? Does it get rid of stories which might be deliberately biased or misleading? Does it want to show us stories which are videos before it shows us stories which are text? Each decision means reprogramming the algorithm which selects types of news stories. Facebook might see this as an engineering task, but these simple decisions are also editorial.
The Facebook effect spreads beyond simply offering a platform and into actually shaping journalism. In the coming years we will increasingly see news organisations employing journalists who are there to report directly onto social sites exclusively. Over time, if it makes economic sense for technology companies to employ more explicitly editorial staff, such as Facebook’s ‘content curators’ who effectively perform an editing function, then we might see social media companies more consciously expanding their editorial role.
2) How can publishers respond to the rise of platforms?
It does not look as though this trend inspired by the rising importance of smartphones is going to slow down anytime soon, and it is certainly never going to reverse altogether. News organisations are stuck as to how to respond, particularly as they lack any scale or technological solutions that might match those created by Silicon Valley. In America at the beginning of 2015, Facebook initiated an experiment with publishers whereby it would publish whole articles or videos instead of just publishing links to them. The rationale for the development was that links to external sites slowed down the way news reached readers.
Most surprising was that news organisations like the New York Times signed up to a greater loss of control by being one of the first organisations to participate in the test. (Others are said to have been approached but declined to take part; most have not been asked.) The idea that an organisation so apparently dedicated to the control of its own brand would take this route is a signal of how much changed behaviours in news audiences is forcing even the most resolute organisations to make compromises. This is a decision every publisher has to make. The trade off between control of your own journalism, versus reaching large audiences, is inevitable for both national and international media.
Fragmentation of news provision, which weakens the bargaining power of journalism organisations, has coincided with a concentration of power in platforms. The only remaining question is how fast will we see a shift from the old models of distribution to the new?
3) How can platforms deal with publishers?
The conundrum of how social platforms should handle news is made more complicated by the fact that their internal structures and code are highly commercially sensitive. How Google, Facebook, and Twitter make their money is by using data to meet the needs of advertisers and users. If we can see exactly how they do that, then their businesses lose a competitive advantage or their algorithms could be ‘gamed’ by unscrupulous third parties.
An absence of data, or rather the secrecy of that data, about what happens between the creation of news and how itis consumed, creates commercial problems for publishers and raises broader issues for democracy. In Europe there is a highly regulated media environment. Even in the US commercial broadcasters are licensed to operate. By contrast, the largely Silicon Valley based companies which are growing vast influence in this area remain largely untouched by media regulation in the US (though they are of course subject to copyright, patents, etc.), and strenuously try to avoid it in Europe and other markets.
Fragmentation might mean that we can no longer even identify what news media are, let alone check that plurality and equality of access are guaranteed. We can no longer really know which stories are being promoted the hardest or which are suppressed with any degree of certainty. Social media companies and other technology companies that control information channels – Apple via its App Store for instance – have become dominant players in global news distribution by accident rather than by design and we are still grappling with how to address this new order.
Branded news apps’ staying power to maintain the audiences they have today is shaky. One thing is clear, news businesses need to have a strategy that embraces permanency of mobile and social platforms and part of that strategy is to accept that there is little they can do to control this new structure.
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