Campbell Brown, the former NBC and CNN broadcaster who is now Facebook’s head of news partnerships, confirmed in a speech at a digital publishing conference that the social network plans to roll out support for subscriptions as part of its mobile Instant Articles platform.

There have been multiple reports that the company was working on such a plan, including a recent piece by Digiday that quoted a number of sources, but Brown’s speech is the first official confirmation. She said testing of the new feature will begin in October.

This plan is likely to cause at least some cheering in media land, because a number of publishers have been clamoring for paywall support from Facebook, and criticizing the lackluster performance of the existing Instant Articles format when it comes to generating revenue.

As with most things involving Facebook, however, this deal sounds like a classic Faustian bargain.

According to Brown, subscriptions will work this way: If a publisher chooses to implement support for a paywall, readers will get 10 articles for free — in much the same way they do with the New York Times’ “metered” access plan. After that, they will be prompted to sign up for a subscription. If they already have one, Facebook says it will make it easy for them to log in.

And what about the revenue — will there be some kind of sharing plan, where Facebook takes a percentage, the way Apple does with its 30%? The company isn’t saying, but it seems likely that there will be, although perhaps not to begin with.

Brown did say that the social network would give publishers control over all of the reader and subscription data involved in the process, which is also likely to come as good news to many. At least they don’t have to hand all of that over to Facebook as well as all of their content. But that doesn’t mean this deal is something media companies should leap at.

The context to this offer, as a number of people have pointed out, is that Facebook is taking some sustained fire for its dominance of the advertising industry (along with Google), with the News Media Alliance arguing its members should be exempted from antitrust laws so that they can present a combined front in bargaining with the digital giants. I wrote about that idea in a previous post.

Not only that, but a number of publishers — including the New York Times, an early partner — have talked openly about how Instant Articles has proven to be a bit of a bust revenue-wise. Some have turned their back on the platform completely, despite Facebook’s attempts to improve things.

But the bottom line with this subscription offering is the same as it has been with Instant Articles and Facebook video and half a dozen other things the social networking behemoth has come up with: They are fundamentally designed to benefit Facebook, and to centralise control in its hands, and to generate as much content as possible. Any benefits they provide to media companies are ancillary at best.

If you connect your subscription plan to Facebook, will you get increased reach? Probably. Will it help you drive some new sign-ups? Perhaps. But it’s important to remember that the entity in control of every aspect of that relationship is Facebook, not you — Facebook decides who sees what and when, what it looks like, how it functions, and how much revenue you will get.

In other words, you are working on land that has been given to you by a feudal lord, and that rarely ends well.

{ 4 comments }

The news came by way of a softball pitch of a story from the New York Times: The News Media Alliance — a group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America — says it plans to ask Congress for a special exemption from antitrust regulations. Why? So that its members can work together to negotiate with Google and Facebook for better terms.

According to the story in the Times (which is a member of the Alliance and supports the lobbying effort) the group’s plan isn’t just about the fight for digital territory, it’s about the endurance of “quality journalism,” which the paper says is “expensive to produce, and under economic pressure as never before” from fake news that gets promoted by Facebook.

If you feel a twinge of something when you read that, you’re not alone. The first thing I thought was “So quality journalism only comes from the members of the News Media Alliance?” That’s some excessive hubris you’ve got there, folks.

This sense of entitlement is at the core of what the NMA is proposing. In effect, it is suggesting that mainstream newspaper companies are the only entities capable of producing quality journalism, and therefore they deserve a get-out-of-jail-free card so they can engage in what amounts to collusion. And they are hoping Congress will see Google and Facebook as the enemy.

Here’s a thought: What if these newspaper companies had spent a little more time trying to compete over the past decade or so, instead of relying on their historic market control to keep their profits rolling in? What if more had tried to improve their websites and their mobile versions, so that users wouldn’t install ad blockers, or turn to other solutions like Facebook Instant Articles?

Every single competitive threat the newspaper industry has faced, from Craigslist to Facebook, has been visible long before it decimated the industry’s profits, and most of the newspapers in the NMA did little or nothing to deal with them until it was too late.

Would Facebook and Google have become just as dominant in the advertising business if that had happened? Probably. But only because they can offer demographic targeting that no newspaper has even tried to produce, let alone succeeded at producing. And in Google’s case, it controls much of the “programmatic” or automated ad bidding market, which has driven prices down.

As Ben Thompson noted in an essay on the topic for his subscription newsletter Stratechery (which I encourage you to subscribe to), the case made by the NMA’s David Chavern is based on a myth: The group argues that it needs help negotiating with Google and Facebook so that it can repair the damage done to its quality journalism business. But quality journalism has never actually been a business.

“The truth is that newspapers made money in the past not by providing societal value, but by having quasi-monopolistic control of print advertising in their geographic area; the societal value was a bonus. Thus, when Chavern complains that “today’s internet distribution systems distort the flow of economic value derived from good reporting”, he is in fact conflating societal value with economic value; the latter does not exist and has never existed.

And yet, this is the classic argument from the industry — that they need to be protected because they are are only ones capable of producing that socially valuable journalism. The Alliance’s counsel, Jonathan Kanter, said that “we’re not just talking about widgets, we’re talking about news, and news is crucial for a democratic society.”

Okay, so let’s assume the group’s journalism is crucial for democracy. And what are the newspapers asking for? They want better terms from Google and Facebook, i.e. more ad revenue — but they also want support for subscriptions. In other words, paywalls. So this product that is crucial for democracy is only delivered to people who can afford to pay, and all of the revenue from that flows to a private company’s bottom line.

This is the kind of thing that drives Thompson to refer (correctly, I think) to what he calls the “suffocating sense of entitlement and delusion” that flows throughout the NMA’s proposal, which “expects someone — anyone! — to give journalists money simply because they are important.”

Realistically speaking, there’s approximately zero chance that Congress is going to exempt the NMA from antitrust rules (although the group may also be hoping that bringing up the subject gets regulators interested in looking at Google and Facebook and their advertising duopoly). But even if it did, it’s unlikely that collective bargaining would help the news industry where it counts.

The reality is that even if newspapers have a monopoly on quality journalism — which is a stretch — they no longer have the monopoly their business was based on, which is the control over advertising. And that’s because they don’t control the distribution of their content, and never will.

It certainly won’t be easy, but there are ways for newspaper companies to compete in this environment, and they don’t involve illegal collusion in an attempt to extort more ad revenue from Google and Facebook. That’s a Hail Mary pass that has little or no hope of succeeding, and likely wouldn’t help the industry much even if it did succeed.

{ 17 comments }

If there’s one thing the coverage of Donald Trump has shown time and again, it’s that the mainstream media is more than happy to construct elaborate stories about him, based on nothing more than a tweet or a short GIF — even if the impression they give of events is distorted as a result.

The latest example was a mini-storm of coverage focused on the idea that Trump was ignored by Agata Kornhauser-Duda, the wife of the Polish prime minister, during a recent visit during the G20 summit. A video clip that made the rounds appeared to show Kornhauser-Duda avoiding a handshake with Trump in favor of one with his wife, Melania.

Headlines said things like “Watch Donald Trump Handshake Rejected by Polish First Lady in Hilariously Awkward Exchange” (Newsweek) and “Polish first lady passes over Trump’s handshake” (Washington Post). But is the video clip a fair representation of what actually happened? Not really.

If you look at longer video clips and those shot from a different angle, it’s obvious that the Polish first lady was heading for Melania Trump from the beginning, and didn’t pass over Trump, who was busy saying hello to her husband. And after she shook Melania’s hand, she turned and shook the president’s hand as well. Nothing very awkward at all.

So why did so many outlets — and plenty of Twitter accounts — choose to make so much out of the alleged rejection? Because it was funny, presumably, to think of the president of the United States being embarrassed or humiliated by someone refusing his handshake.

Short GIFS and clickbait headlines about Trump being rejected also likely drove a certain amount of low-quality, high-churn traffic to those news sites, something outlets like Newsweek are increasingly desperate for. But what is the long-term cost of these strategies?

The problem with posting a funny GIF of Trump is that, even though it might seem like a harmless laugh, to the extent that it distorts the reality of what actually happened, it plays right into the allegations of “fake news” coming from conservatives in the U.S. There are plenty of real things worth criticising Trump for — we don’t need to invent them.

{ 4 comments }

It was a pretty big scoop, at least as far as Twitter and Reddit were concerned: CNN’s “K-File” investigative unit, run by former BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski, found the guy who created the GIF that Donald Trump used for a recent anti-CNN tweet. And then a single poorly-worded line in the story shifted the focus away from the GIF creator and onto CNN itself.

In the story, CNN said it had decided not to identify the Reddit user who originally created the GIF, someone who goes by the name HanAssholeSolo. But then it added a coda to that promise that created a controversy about its motives that continues to expand.

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

As soon as I read that last line, I thought to myself “That’s odd. It sounds like CNN is threatening to identify this guy if he steps out of line in the future.” That’s a pretty unusual thing for a mainstream news outlet to do. So I tweeted about it:

Kaczynski responded to me (and to others) that we were misinterpreting the phrase, and that it was intended only to make it clear that CNN had not made any kind of agreement with the Reddit user to keep his identity anonymous. But I was hardly the only one who saw it as an implied threat.

Unfortunately for CNN, this line was seized upon by pro-Trump forces (my tweet was retweeted over two thousand times, which is an unusually large amount) and used to accuse the media outlet of blackmailing their target. This in turn fed into the ongoing “CNN is fake news” campaign that gave rise to the original Trump GIF of him taking down a person with the CNN logo for a head.

I don’t think CNN deliberately wanted to threaten the Reddit user with that phrase, but I find it hard to believe that no one else could see that this is the way it would be interpreted. According to BuzzFeed, the line was added later by an editor. “All we intended to make clear is that there was no agreement about revealing or not revealing his identity,” a CNN executive said.

That may have been the intention, but the way it was handled has made CNN’s problems worse instead of better. If you have a target on your back the way CNN does, you should try reading everything you write in the most suspicious way possible, just in case.

{ 5 comments }

A large number of people, many of them in the mainstream media, spent a large part of Sunday up in arms about a tweet from Donald Trump in which he bashed CNN as “fraud news” (he’s apparently trying to get away from the term “fake news,” probably because it has been debased by him and his followers). The tweet included a GIF from a wrestling event in which he took someone down, but their face is obscured by a CNN logo.

Obviously, this is far from the only time Trump has attacked CNN on Twitter, and it’s not even close to being the worst thing he has said about them in speeches or at rallies. So why did it cause so much fuss? Mostly because some saw it as encouraging violence against members of the media, which they said crossed the line of acceptable behavior — and some argued that it should be seen as a breach of Twitter’s terms of service, which forbids harassment or threats of violence.

There’s a lot going on here, of course, which makes it more complicated than just some dumb tweet. First of all, it’s from the president of the United States. And it’s yet another in a long line of attacks on the mainstream media and threats against the press, and even threats against the First Amendment. Trump has deliberately made the traditional media the enemy, and this apparently plays extremely well with his base, who see the press as left-wing liars.

Needless to say, this troubles many people in the media, including me. It’s a pernicious and dangerous attempt to destabilize the free press and to empower news outlets that are more friendly to Trump, such as Breitbart News, InfoWars and NewsMax.

That said, however, this is also just a dumb tweet that includes a joke video clip from a clearly staged wrestling match, with a poorly Photoshopped logo added to it — in other words, it seems to be an obvious parody. In any case, it is hardly a call to violence against the press. And since that is the case, if Twitter was to remove it, it would provide Trump’s base with even more ammo to argue that their guy is being treated unfairly by liberal media snowflakes.

On top of all that, I personally don’t want Twitter to be pushing the censorship line even further down the slippery slope it is already on. Should hate and outright violence be removed? Yes. But if we are going to take down every tweet or account that engages in parody or satire, that’s going to lead to some dark places. As Charlie Warzel points out, Twitter didn’t even take down Kathy Griffin’s severed-head parody tweet, and that was much closer to advocating actual violence.

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci also makes a good point, which is that CNN is hardly a blameless actor in this whole scenario. The network has deliberately and crassly played to Trump’s supporters in a variety of ways, and arguably gave the candidate hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free advertising during the campaign. As she put it, if you turn the election into a wrestling match, someone who comes from that background will turn it against you.

I realize that just because CNN has given Trump lots of coverage, that doesn’t justify him attacking them. That’s called blaming the victim. And I also know that as soon as a journalist is thrown to the floor by a Republican (as Ben Jacobs was not long ago by then Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte) or is otherwise harmed by a Trump supporter, someone will say that this GIF made them do it. I happen to think that’s unlikely, but I could be wrong.

In any case, I think Twitter was right not to remove the tweet, because that’s a slippery slope that I don’t think we want to go down. Feel free to argue the point with me in the comments below.

{ 4 comments }