Consider Apple. The news industry’s longstanding love affair with what has become the most valuable company on Earth expanded with the death of Steve Jobs. But Apple has a long history of controlling behavior. If you create a journalism app to be sold in the iPhone or iPad marketplace, you explicitly give Apple the right to decide whether your journalism content is acceptable under the company’s vague guidelines. Apple has used this to block material it considers improper, including (until the company came under fire for this) refusing for a time to allow Mark Fiore, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons, to sell his own app. Given the dominance Apple now enjoys in the tablet market, journalists should have a Plan B. Apple’s paranoia (not too strong a word) and secretive ways have led it to attack journalism itself. In 2004 the company tried to force several websites to disclose their sources in their Apple coverage; the case was a direct challenge to fundamental business-journalism practices. (Note: I played a small role in that case, filing declarations on behalf of the websites that they were engaged in protected journalism.)
Facebook is another potential threat to independent journalism. Most journalists feel they have no choice but to use the social networking service, which has become by far the most dominant site online. But Facebook’s walled-garden approach—it is creating what amounts to an alternative Internet—brings risks. Moreover, Facebook and a small number of other technology companies are capturing the bulk of online advertising. Amazingly, more and more news organizations are outsourcing their online commenting to Facebook, further solidifying the position of a company that gains vastly more from these arrangements—namely detailed information on users’ browsing habits—than it gives up. To the extent that journalists participate in their ecosystems, they are fueling their top competitors.
That competition clearly includes search engines. Google, for example, has enormous power to decide who is visible, and has collected staggering amounts of data on our individual preferences and how we use the Internet. So far, the company has behaved in mostly benign ways. But it may not always be in the hands of people who take seriously the “don’t be evil” mantra the founders established at the beginning.
Government regulators are taking closer looks at the technology companies. This is potentially an important brake on abuse. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, Republican presidents tend not to enforce antitrust laws with anywhere near the effort—such as it is—that Democrats bring.
It has taken news people too long to understand this, but the Obama administration may have been the least friendly to journalism of any, regardless of party, in recent times—notably in its zeal to prosecute leakers and penchant for secrecy. It’s impossible to know to what extent the government has used post-2001 authority to keep an eye on journalists’ communications with sources, or at least to find out who the sources were after the fact. What is clear is that prosecutions of sources have expanded dramatically, and that journalists need to upgrade their own techniques and technology when it comes to protecting sources. (See this sidebar.) Despite a number of worthy initiatives to open up some government data, moreover, the administration has by many accounts been more secretive than its predecessors on matters of vital public interest. And as noted earlier, the administration’s pursuit of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, with some unfortunate cheerleading from journalists who should know better, ultimately is a threat to all journalism and free speech.
The promise of the Internet was profound: a radically decentralized, democratized medium where anyone could publish and anyone could be heard. The reaction from industries and governments that feel threatened by the Net is to re-centralize. This may simply be the nature of modern capitalism and government, and the forces of control are getting more powerful every day. They are a direct threat to journalism and innovation. Journalists are at long last starting to take note—and we can only hope it’s not too late.
(Note: Portions of this article appeared first in a posting at Nieman Journalism Lab.)