A Little Personal News…

by Mathew on October 16, 2017 · 97 comments

I’m excited to to announce that I’m joining the Columbia Journalism Review as chief digital writer, focusing primarily on the power of platforms like Facebook and Google (and Twitter and Snapchat) and what that means for media.

Digital and social networks have become the central distribution system for news for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. And that power — much of which is hidden from view, fuelled by mysterious algorithms — has profound implications for both media and society as a whole.

I’ve been a fan of the CJR ever since I was a young journalism student in Toronto — which was longer ago than I care to remember — and I’ve been impressed with what Kyle Pope has done in his time as editor of the magazine and the site, including a renewed focus on the web and the impact of digital media.

I’m also a huge fan of what my friend Emily Bell is doing with the Tow Center at Columbia, and I hope that we can find ways to work together to explore and understand what is happening to journalism and media. Or at least maybe get a cup of tea and commiserate :-)

All joking aside, this is a dark time for journalism in many ways — but it is also a fascinating time, as the ground continues to shift beneath us, and even some of the bedrock assumptions underlying the industry are being questioned.

Journalism has arguably never been more important than it is right now, but the media landscape has also never been more fractured, more volatile and more under pressure — both financially and otherwise — than it is now, and much of the pressure is coming from Facebook and Google.

I hope to explore the impact of those forces in a variety of ways at CJR, and I hope that you will come with me on that journey and help me to explore and understand it.

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You can tell how much a specific issue has gotten under Mark Zuckerberg’s skin by the amount of effort he puts into his response. Some things get just a small mention, some get a press release, some get a 6,000-word blog post — and some get the Facebook equivalent of a full-court press. Zuckerberg’s video address on Thursday afternoon, in which he tried to address concerns about Russian election interference via Facebook ads, definitely falls into the latter category.

The Facebook CEO is clearly trying to get out in front of this issue, in a way he hasn’t with anything other than maybe the fake news brouhaha, and for the same reason: Because he’s afraid of what Congress might do if he doesn’t pre-empt their actions with his own remedies.

To that end, his video address offered what Zuckerberg described as transparency around the so-called “dark ads” that political operatives (including those working for Donald Trump during his campaign, using tools like Cambridge Analytica) love to use in an attempt to target specific groups and individuals on the platform.

In a nutshell, advertisers will have to disclose all of their ads on their Facebook pages so anyone can see them, and Facebook is turning over details of Russian involvement to the intelligence committees looking into that country’s attempts to influence the election.

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity [and] I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy. That’s not what we stand for,” said Zuckerberg, who also posted the text of his remarks to Facebook. “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion.”

The moves announced by Zuckerberg seem like admirable steps aimed at bringing shadowy political advertising into the light, and an offering that many Facebook critics have been calling for. Some congratulated Zuckerberg for finally listening to their demands for more clarity and transparency.

There’s a catch to Facebook’s offering though, and it’s contained in the term “political ads.” How exactly does Zuckerberg plan to define that term? Some ads might be obvious because they include political topics or personalities. But one of the key aspects of Facebook’s business is that almost anything can function as an ad, including news stories (fake or otherwise). And Russian operatives likely made use of all of these tools and more.

In fact, in a recent report, Facebook’s own security team spelled out some of the many ways in which it suspects government actors of various kinds manipulated the platform to try and influence the outcome of the US election.

“We identified malicious actors on Facebook who, via inauthentic accounts, actively engaged across the political spectrum, with the apparent intent of increasing tensions between supporters of these groups and fracturing their supportive base.”

Zuckerberg may be hoping that his newfound interest in transparency will assuage those who are looking to regulate Facebook’s behavior, but if so his hope is likely to be in vain.

Matt Stoller is an influential political analyst who works for a group called Open Markets Institute (the group was formerly part of the New America Foundation, but left after what its founder alleges was pressure from Google). Stoller clearly believes that Facebook should be subject to government regulatory oversight on a number of fronts — including areas related to political advertising.

Stoller isn’t alone. Brianna Wu, who gained a high profile online after being targeted for harassment during the “Gamergate” uproar, is running for Congress in Massachusetts, and says she is in favor of regulation for Facebook as well. “Facebook has far too much power to not be regulated the way traditional media is. It’s anticompetitive to give them a legal out,” she said on Twitter. And sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has been asking for more transparency from Facebook for some time, said: “I’d been calling for this for many years—but key point here is that Facebook, actually one person, can arbitrarily decide to do this or not.”

So where does this leave Zuckerberg and Facebook? Running hard to try and catch a ship that may already have sailed — a ship whose ultimate destination is regulatory oversight of the network in some form or another. And political advertising is likely just the tip of a very large iceberg.

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Not surprisingly, given the topic, a recent piece at BuzzFeed about the high-profile tweeting habits of two NBC staffers has sparked a wide range of responses, most of them snarky. There’s nothing Media Twitter loves (or loves to hate) more than an article that is all about Media Twitter.

A lot of the criticism came from those who believe that Bradd Jaffy (an editor and writer with NBC News) and Kyle Griffin (a producer with MSNBC) are doing one or both of these two bad things:

1) Taking material from their employer and using it to bolster their own Twitter followings, and/or

2) Using content from other news outlets to do the same thing, without adding any kind of insight or commentary apart from maybe an emoji.

From the story: “Critics — many of them other reporters — see it as as drafting off the success of someone else’s tweets. They see Griffin or Jaffy’s emojis as ways of adding their own brand on top of someone making or breaking actual news while adding very little value of their own.”

I don’t see much truth in this kind of criticism, to be honest. Many of those I’ve seen slamming Jaffy and Griffin for doing this (and Yashar Ali, who is quoted praising the two) do something very similar themselves, but haven’t gotten the same kind of following and are likely jealous.

Also, to journalists who spend every waking moment checking the newswire (i.e., Twitter) and know every nuance of every story, Jaffy and Griffin may not be seen as adding much, or be seen as drafting off the work of others. But at however small a level, they are providing a service to readers, and they promote the work of the journalists they link to. That’s good enough for me.

The part that interests me the most is the criticism that they are taking content from NBC and using it without permission in a way that benefits their Twitter brand. As a number of others have pointed out, the fact that some of this criticism comes from within NBC itself just reinforces how behind the curve much of that organization still is.

This kind of pushback reminds me of when I was promoting the idea of social media platforms like Twitter as a tool for journalism, as the first social-media editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto. The same kind of arguments were made — and that was almost 10 years ago.

The thinking then was that the Globe itself needed to get all of the attention, and so only the institutional account should be tweeting the news. In part, this was because some editors were concerned that individual writers would get larger brands than the paper, and then take all those followers with them when they left (which is in fact exactly what happened in many cases).

That kind of fear may be understandable, but still futile. The fact is that in almost every case, a personal account on Twitter — even a bad one, or one that adds no more original content than an emoji — is always going to be more engaging and more effective than an institutional one. Social media is called that because it is designed to be social, and no one wants to be social with a faceless institutional brand.

If it is smart, NBC will give Jaffy and Griffin whatever leeway they need, and build whatever it can around them while they are still around. The more it tries to control them and their tweeting, the less effective they will be.

Source: This Is Probably The Only Story You Didn’t Hear About First From Bradd Jaffy And Kyle Griffin

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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.

Update: In a statement on Wednesday, Brown said “Quality journalism costs money to produce, and we want to make sure it can thrive on Facebook. As part of our test to allow publishers in Instant Articles to implement a paywall, they will link to their own websites to process subscriptions and keep 100% of the revenue.” 

Brown also said 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.

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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.

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