These are troubling days for journalism, says New York Times chief executive and former BBC director general Mark Thompson. Even the primacy of fact and well-sourced, objective reporting over delusion and propaganda is under assault. Transparency is the first task for those writing the algorithms, he argues. (Extract from Anti-Social Media: The Impact on journalism and Society, published today).
A concert party of Russia and other repressive regimes, populists and extremists, assorted trolls and bots – not to mention the 45th President of the United States – are doing their best to convince the world of what George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four called ‘blackwhite’: that dispassionate, accurate journalism is fake news, and conspiracy theories, gross exaggeration and outright lies the real thing.
- January 20, 2021
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Their aim is to level reality with their own alternative facts and, by this process of levelling, to rob serious journalism of its civic impact and value. They don’t have to be believed to succeed – they merely need to sow enough doubt in enough minds that a large slice of the population no longer knows who to trust.
Some of the conventions that protect the ability of real journalists to report real news are also being flouted. In June 2018 we learned that, as part of a leak inquiry, the FBI had seized years’ worth of emails and phone records belonging to New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
This may be standard operating procedure in controlled societies. In the US, it breached established precedent, was manifestly against the spirit of the First Amendment, and was rightly condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists as a “fundamental threat to press freedom”.
But these threats can be seen off. The fake-newsers may have convinced some people that up is down for now. Sooner or later brute reality and common sense will settle the argument in favour of the facts.
As for the state and press freedom, the safeguard enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the tradition of self-restraint by the authorities when free speech is at stake, should prevail – at least if citizens speak out, and Congress and the courts do their job.
An ‘intractable’ threat to journalism
But the most serious threat facing journalism – the disruption of the traditional business model, and the failure of all but a handful of titles across the western world to find credible digital alternatives – is much more intractable.
It presents as an economic problem, but its consequences, which are already playing out and – unless something changes – are likely to grow far worse over the coming years, are civic and political.
Democracies cannot remain healthy if citizens do not know what is happening in their communities – if public and private institutions are not held to account and if elections come and go without issues being aired and candidates being scrutinised.
Unfortunately, at present the local, regional and national professional journalism, which historically played such an important role in meeting these civic needs, is ailing – in some cities and regions dying – in much of America and the West.
There are exceptions, and The New York Times is one of them. We have national scale and international potential. We realised in time that high-quality journalism, a deep relationship with our most engaged readers, and an effective digital subscription model offered a far more promising path to the future than digital advertising alone.
Today we have more digital news subscribers than any other news organisation in the world – and, at getting on for 4m, twice as many total subscriber-relationships as at the peak of print 25 years ago. Our revenue and operating profit have been growing, not ‘failing’, whatever a little bird may have told you.
‘Doubling down’ on high-quality news
Most importantly, we have a newsroom and editorial department, which – at some 1,450 strong – are bigger and more formidable than they were 10 and 20 years ago.
For me, that’s less the result of our digital success than the single most important reason for it: The New York Times responded to digital disruption, not by disinvesting in high-quality news and opinion, but by doubling down on them.
And as we’ve found – whatever cultural pessimists may say – a growing number of people here and around the world are willing to pay for it. But we have advantages that most news providers do not enjoy.
And, even with those advantages, we find the environment for growing our digital revenue – and securing the funding of our newsroom – harder than I believe we should.
Facebook and Google
So to what extent are the major digital platforms – Google, Facebook, Apple and the others – part of the problem? And, if they are, what could they, we, and the world’s policy-makers and regulators do to put things right? Two caveats first:
One: There’s no point blaming individual digital companies, no matter how big, for the fundamental attributes of the internet, or for the decline and fall of the cosy print-advertising based business model that supported journalism for so long. Neither is their fault and, in any event, there’s no way of putting the clock back.
Two: I want to proceed with a presumption of good faith on the part of the major platforms. Like many media executives, I’ve spent time with the leaders of Google, Facebook and Apple and I’ve seen no evidence that they want to destroy journalism, or are unaware of the crisis in the economics of news, or unwilling to explore ways of improving the eco-system.
Google, in particular, has taken a series of tangible steps to help news organisations build digital subscriptions, for instance allowing publishers to deploy their subscription business rules on its platform rather than imposing Google’s own rules on them.
Four major unresolved issues
However, major unresolved issues remain. We can put them under four broad headings:
Opacity: We do not know, beyond inevitably imperfect and incomplete empirical observation, how the algorithms of the major platforms sort and prioritise our content, nor can we reliably predict or influence changes in those algorithms, nor in any sense hold the companies to account for them.
Impoverishment of the news experience: To appreciate and critique news sources over time, and to decide which to trust, users need to develop sophisticated relationships with news brands and individual reporters and opinion writers, but the platforms encourage atomised consumption of single stories and the jumbling of stories of different depth and quality from different sources, and they strip away essential signals – news or opinion, for instance, lead story or minor footnote – about editorial intentionality.
Inequitable economics: Although the platforms undoubtedly help publishers reach new audiences, most publishers believe that the current division of the economic benefit of the presence of news content on the platforms unfairly favours the platforms.
Independence and plurality of editorial decision-making: This is the least-discussed issue – it is that open societies require multiple independent points of editorial control, which can compete and hold each other to account, and between which the public can choose, but that the major platforms may decide, or feel pressured, to replace this plurality with single points of essentially algorithmic editorial control.
These four categories are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing: the relative poverty of the news experience on the platforms makes it harder for publishers to monetise it.
The opacity of the operation of the search and social algorithms increases the risk of a loss of plurality in editorial decision-making, and of course business model failure because of the inferior economics of the platforms will have its own impact on plurality.
Most people assume that publishers only care about the disappointing revenue they derive from their presence on the platforms. My view is that all four headings are important, and not just to publishers but to society at large.
‘Full transparency’ of platform algorithms is ‘essential’
Let me offer a few responses to these concerns.
First, full transparency about both algorithmic and human editorial selection by the major digital platforms is an essential preliminary if we are to address any of these issues. It would be best if this were done voluntarily, but even if it requires regulation or legislation, it must be done – and done promptly.
As a second preliminary, the major platforms must engage with the collective industry bodies of the news business to arrive at shared principles both on the presentation and choice of news content, and on its monetisation.
The stakes – and the need for consistency and comparability in the treatment of news providers – mean that, though the present informal bilateral relationships between, say, The New York Times and Google, or The Washington Post and Facebook, should no doubt continue, they are not enough.
Third, we need to do more to restore the labels and design cues that help users make sense of news in a physical newspaper, or on a TV screen, or even on a traditional web page, but which are stripped out in smartphone newsfeeds and search results. Without sufficient signposts, no wonder users confuse news and opinion and other significant editorial nuances.
Fourth, regulators, both in the US and in Europe and other jurisdictions, should examine how well these markets are functioning.
‘Markets… may require competition remedies’
In economic terms, news provision on the major platforms consists of two barters: consumers exchange their attention and personal data for the services provided by the platform, while publishers offer the platforms valuable content in exchange for distribution, audience leads [to] advertising opportunities.
It is sometimes argued that, because the major platforms do not charge consumers money for their services, the public cannot suffer exploitative pricing. But barter implies an exchange of goods or services of real and quantifiable value in which a party can get a better or worse deal.
If scale and network effects allow a search or social platform to achieve market dominance, a consumer who feels that they must use the platform may find themselves exchanging their attention and data for less in return by way of services than they would if there were effective competition.
The same goes for a publisher who may conclude that they have no choice but to offer their content to a platform despite the poor economics. In other words, a market based on barter can experience market dominance, market failure and market abuse.
I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that such abuse is occurring, but these markets deserve close technical scrutiny and may require competition remedies.
‘Immediate threat’ from Facebook
Lastly, the topic of independence and plurality of editorial decision-making. We face an immediate threat here, which is that Facebook’s catalogue of missteps with data and extreme and hateful content will lead it into a naïve attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor-in-chief, prioritising and presumably downgrading and rejecting content on a survey and data-driven assessment of whether the provider of the content is broadly trusted or not.
Now you might expect The New York Times to favour such a scheme. Indeed Mark Zuckerberg, whose idea this seems to be, told us The New York Times should expect to do well in such a ranking. In fact, we regard the concept of “broadly trusted” as a sinister one, which misunderstands the role journalism plays in an open society and is likely to lead to damage and distort, not just the news business, but democratic debate.
Democracy depends in part on unbounded competition between different journalistic perspectives and the clash of different judgements and opinions. History suggests that mainstream news organisations frequently get it right, but also that, not infrequently, it is the outliers who should be listened to.
At any given moment – think of mainstream media today in Russia, or in continental Europe in the 1920s and 1930s – a majority of the public may judge trustworthiness incorrectly.
To feed transient majority sentiment about trust back into the editorial decision-making process – and to do it essentially behind closed doors – is profoundly dangerous.
The process of citizens making up their own mind which news source to believe is messy, and can indeed lead to fake news, but to rob them of that ability, and to replace the straightforward accountability of editors and publishers for the news they produce with a centralised trust algorithm will not make democracy healthier but damage it further.
‘When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it’
The depth of Facebook’s lack of understanding of the nature and civic purpose of news was recently revealed by their proposal – somewhat modified after representations from the news industry – to categorise and label journalism used for marketing purposes by publishers as political advocacy, given that both contained political content.
This is like arguing that an article about pornography in The New York Times is the same as pornography. Facebook admitted to us that their practical problem was that they were under immense public pressure to label political advocacy, but that their algorithm was unable to tell the difference between advocacy and journalism.
This would be the same algorithm that will soon be given the new task of telling the world which news to trust.
When it comes to news, Facebook still doesn’t get it. In its efforts to clear up one bad mess it seems set on joining those who want to blur the line between reality-based journalism and propaganda. But the underlying danger – of the agency of editors and public alike being usurped by centralised algorithmic control – is present with every digital platform where we do not fully understand how the processes of editorial selection and prioritisation take place. Which right now means all of them.
Thus the urgent need for transparency. The internet could still fulfil its promise as the enabler of more informed, more-empowered democracies. But it won’t get there on its own. And nor will the major digital platforms.
This chapter is taken from a presentation made by the author at the Open Markets Institute conference in June 2018 – Breaking the News: Free Speech & Democracy in the Age of Platform Monopoly.
This is an edited version of a chapter from the new book Anti-Social Media: The Impact on journalism and Society, edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, available from Abramis priced £19.95. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy.
Picture: Reuters/Lucas Jackson