Tech is losing its war on journalism

It seems like only yesterday that journalism faced existential challenges from technology platforms that helped anyone publish whatever they wanted, took over the distribution of news and usurped the advertising market with promises of precise targeting.

It turns out that the news profession can be quite successful at repelling those challenges.

The enemy is in retreat. The news business just needs to be bolder about claiming the spoils.

Earlier this month, the Huffington Post scaled back its platform for unpaid bloggers, and Facebook decided to ask users to rank news sources by trustworthiness.

Both represent a clear preference for traditional journalism, in which people get paid for producing stories for good reason. The just-released 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows rising confidence in traditional media. In the 28 countries where the survey was conducted, 59 per cent now trust journalism, up from 54 per cent a year ago, while trust in social media platforms has declined from 53 per cent to 51 per cent.

Pretty much everywhere in the Western world, professional media is considered to be more reliable sources of information than online platforms. Facebook's announcement is an admission that the company cannot completely replace professional output with user-generated content.

"News will always be a critical way to start conversations on important topics," chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote.

But it is more than that.

Facebook is telling users that consuming the product of certain news organisations is better for their well-being than being indiscriminate. That is why the Facebook announcement drove up The New York Times' stock price.

Left scrambling are "social first" media companies, which are cutting staff as they discover that trying to piggyback on the growth of greedy and vulnerable Internet giants was not a great bet.

At this rate, news outlets could even find themselves asking why they are not putting more resources into managing their home pages rather than social media.

Now that tech platforms are realising they have no good replacement for quality journalism, it is time for them to start paying for it. That, in a nutshell, is the meaning of a statement released last Monday by News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.

He accused Facebook and Google of popularising "scurrilous news sources", praised them for recognising the problem and made a demand. He said: "If Facebook wants to recognise 'trusted' publishers, then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies.

"The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services.

Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook's profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists."

Given Mr Zuckerberg's recognition of the value of news for his company's stated purpose - connecting people and building communities - that is a fair suggestion.

News publishers should be ready to fight the re-publication of their content. It worked for the music industry: Facebook is paying licence fees for music used in home videos.

If "trusted" news outlets pressure Facebook, it will pay them, too.

News publishers should not stop there, though. It is an aberration that social media and search engines have become top distribution channels for many of them, supplanting their own websites and undermining both advertising and subscription revenues.

Because of this, any strategy change by Facebook and Google requires tweaks, sometimes even major changes, to the way content is displayed and packaged.

Publishers need to pay more attention to projects such as the Brave browser, designed to help them get paid both directly and through ad revenue sharing.

They also need to work doggedly on changing online ad industry standards, shifting them from a dishonest trade in quietly harvested personal data to conscious arrangements in which people are paid, in cash and in quality content, for viewing ads.

It is also time for industry-wide agreements on better paywalls that are not easily bypassed by a cache cleanup or by opening an incognito window in a browser.

They would, at the very least, help bargain with Internet platforms over carriage fees.

Until recently, all these important fights were complicated by widespread defeatism in the news industry and by the willingness of upstart "news organisations" to give content away for free in hopes of picking up a few crumbs from the tech giants' advertising feast.

It should be clear now that the defeatism was misplaced and the dumping did not work for anyone.

Good content cannot be free. It is time for a counter-attack.

BLOOMBERG


 • Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Tech is losing its war on journalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe