The Tow Center’s latest report on US journalism publishers and the tech company platforms is an excellent update on a rocky relationship. The headline suggests a ‘new era’ but the detail in the report suggests that while the romance is over, they are still very attached.
Certainly, according to the people that Tow spoke to, the news orgs are more wary of the ‘platform promise’:
When publishers refer to the platform era, game, moment, or bubble, they are describing a simple equation that was, until very recently, the platform promise: The platforms had audiences in the hundreds of millions and billions, and should publishers choose to publish their content through platforms’ publishing products—placing ads against that content—the unrivaled number of eyeballs would bring publishers a level of revenue that made it worthwhile to forfeit the direct editorial control and audience relationships that publishers now understand to be key to their success.
It’s the story of how a relationship that promised so much (Scale! Eyeballs! Ad Revenue!) turned sour. It’s like watching the latest episode of a Netflix media marriage melodrama. Kind of Succession meets Silicon Valley crossed with Mad Men.
Yet, I wonder if the most important plot-twist this year has been the emergence of a new character for the publishers to fall in love with: the public. The Tow report shows how the pivot to subscription models means that publishers are discovering that ‘users’ are also humans:
One publisher told us then, “News organizations lost the idea of the audience as a real user, somebody that you had to work to acquire. Now there is this turn to understanding that our mission needs to be stronger. We need to be more respectful of our audience, because we need to have a direct relationship with them. They are not just a couple of billions that show up in analytics, but real people who care about news or who want a reliable and trustworthy news experience.”
It may be a ‘new era’ but as the report shows, the relationship will continue to be critical. Not just because of the handouts to support the struggling news industry. In a data-driven, mobile, social world, the tech companies will continue to provide many of the tools and infrastructure for journalism. As Emily Bell concludes, there’s more technological change coming:
Arguably companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and even Amazon are already in charge of the next phase of newsroom development as they lead on the development of artificial intelligence applications. Given the potential conflicts of interest, we see it as important that this new phase of interaction between the two fields is carefully scrutinized.
Which leads me neatly to the inevitable plug for our recent AI and Journalism survey of how newsrooms around the world are using AI technologies and how they view the future. One of the key issues it tackled was the significance of that platform/publisher relationship.
Our respondents were critical about the power and some of the behaviour of the platforms. But overall they recognised their importance and the need for healthy dialogue:
I would like to see tech companies that have successfully used AI or are developing it, to spread awareness of the many uses and act as ambassadors. Technology companies are crucial for the successful transition into an AI-powered future. They bear a great responsibility in terms of not only getting it right but also in terms of creating a healthy ecosystem.
I hope that this Tow report signals an end to publisher arrogance or self-pity. It’s slightly hypocritical for an industry that took money from Big Tobacco and Fossil Fuel companies for so long to complain about the tech companies’ ethics. Having asset-stripped local news, it doesn’t look good for them to sneer at the platforms’ handouts to grass roots news either. And if we’re going to get sanctimonious about data privacy then publishers also need to check out the transparency of their own systems.
News media is going to play a vital role in keeping the platforms accountable so finding ways not to depend on them has more than just business sense. But this relationship will continue. What is important is that the publishers and the platforms realise that it is not just about them. Unless the public have confidence in both, then the next era will be even rockier.
This article by Charlie Beckett @CharlieBeckett
This article does not reflect the official policy or views of Polis or the LSE