Publishers’ dilemma

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By A.S. Panneerselvan
The Hindu

It seems as though I have been residing in a world of dilemmas for the last couple of months. The last column of March, “A journalist’s dilemma” (March 27, 2017) dealt with a question that constantly haunts a reporter: is being neutral an insensitive act? I explored the line that divides overreach and remit in the last column, “The text, the texture and the grain” (April 10, 2017). The latest study by Emily Bell and Taylor Owen, ‘The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism’, is about the dilemma confronting publishers of news organisations in dealing with the increasing power of technology companies. Though the study is on American journalism, the findings have a bearing on the Indian scenario. One of the reasons for sharing this study, which is essentially for the news publishing community, is that the news media industry is a common good and its sustainability is everyone’s business.

Usurping the role of publisher

Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and Taylor Owen, assistant professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, contend that the influence of social media platforms and technology companies is having a greater effect on American journalism than even the shift from print to digital. They document the rapid takeover of the roles of traditional publishers by companies including Facebook, Snapchat, Google, and Twitter. They look at serious questions regarding how the costs of journalism will be supported in this new context. They also establish the power of technology companies in controlling what audiences see, who gets paid for their attention, and the format and type of journalism that flourishes.

The study traces the convergence between technology companies, especially platform companies, and journalism over the last two decades. Ms. Bell and Mr. Owen assert that there were three major shifts in business and distribution models: the move from analog to digital, the rise of the social Web, and the dominance of mobile. In their assessment, if the speed of convergence continues, “more news organisations are likely to cease publishing — distributing, hosting, and monetising — as a core activity”.

Ms. Bell and Mr. Owen are not too impressed by the idea of reflection in platform companies following the 2016 ‘fake news’ revelations and their impact on electoral outcomes. They establish how this exclusive focus on ‘fake news’ distracts from the larger issue — “that the structure and the economics of social platforms incentivise the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material”. They argue: “Journalism with high civic value — journalism that investigates power, or reaches underserved and local communities — is discriminated against by a system that favours scale and shareability.”

Impacts of opaqueness

The growing technology-led opaqueness has a debilitating impact not only on news, journalistic practices, and the economics of the news industry, but also on the democratic polity itself. Ms. Bell and Mr. Owen list some of the critical dilemmas of publishers: “Should they continue the costly business of maintaining their own publishing infrastructure, with smaller audiences but complete control over revenue, brand, and audience data? Or, should they cede control over user data and advertising in exchange for the significant audience growth offered by Facebook or other platforms?”

The most paradoxical question that emerges from the study is this: “While news might reach more people than ever before, for the first time, the audience has no way of knowing how or why it reaches them, how data collected about them is used, or how their online behaviour is being manipulated. And publishers are producing more content than ever, without knowing who it is reaching or how — they are at the mercy of the algorithm.” The report cites a Pew study that said more than 65% of all digital advertising revenue goes to Verizon, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook. While the authors of the research are aware of issues like fake news, filter bubbles, a ‘post-truth’ society, and the decline of trust in the media, they are certain that all these issues are “proxies for the fundamental question of how our world of news and information has been upended by technological change.”

While it is for publishers to decide how much control they wish to cede to platform firms to reach more readers, it is for readers to realise that quality journalism costs money and they have a role in defraying the cost of producing credible information.

This column was originally published in The Hindu on 17 April 2017.

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