Experts wary of ‘platforms as publishers’

“He’s moved over to the dark side,” announced journalist David Clinch, explaining why he was moderating one of today’s panels at the Columbia Journalism School in place of a former colleague who recently took a senior role at Twitter and therefore recused himself from a discussion of “Platforms as Publishers.”

Clinch’s phrasing was playful, of course, but the joke only landed because of the serious, persistent tension between “Journalism + Silicon Valley,” as the all-day event hosted by Columbia’s Tow Center was called. Although digital adaptation for news media is an accepted necessity, many of the journalists and scholars who spoke Thursday maintained a cautious tone about how that partnership will unfold.

Whenever this period of publishing tumult subsides, is it possible that stability will emerge? That hope was invoked by panelist Andrew McLaughlin, a partner at the media startup “betaworks” who served as deputy chief technology officer to the United States from 2009 to 2011. It will not, he answered. “The real trick,” McLaughlin explained, “is not for publishers to seek protective zones within these platforms, but to build stuff,” as in their own technology.

An alternate perspective came from the sole Silicon Valley ambassador to speak, Michael Reckhow, the project manager at Facebook in charge of “Instant Articles.” That initiative, which launched in May, hosts news stories on Facebook rather than linking to the publications’ websites. Earlier this week, the analytics company SimpleReach reported that referral traffic from mobile and desktop to Facebook’s top 30 publishers declined 32 percent from January to October.

Reckhow said total referrals have not declined, if mobile users are fully accounted for. One upside of Instant Articles, he said, is that it allows news organizations to tap into emerging readerships, such as India’s, with greater ease than if they relied exclusively on their own websites.       

Does Reckhow share McLaughlin’s projection for the ongoing uncertainty of distribution via social media? “We have conversations with publishers every week about things that they want us to build into a platform,” he told CJR afterward. “So, I think there’s always going to be a feedback loop in a conversation, but at the same time as publishers start to use these new platforms they’re going to find the things that work, and they’re going to build confidence in their newsrooms and in their organizations that they can use these platforms in productive ways.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Another cause for concern is Facebook’s ability to tweak an algorithm and radically disrupt readership. When asked by CJR about this, Reckhow said he hopes a “NewsFeed FYI blog,” which was implemented last year and preempts questions about Facebook’s news decisions, has helped resolve some of that uncertainty.

More than 200 professionals (among them, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson) gathered to hear seven panel discussions, ranging from an interview with Times CEO Mark Thompson about his newspaper’s “vision for the future,” to a discussion of the difficulties reporting on a technology beat. That panel featured John Herman of The Awl, who said that not long from now, the idea of a “platform beat” will seem as vague and antiquated as a “capitalism beat” would today. Herman also offered a cautionary note about covering social media’s news distribution. “I’m consistently surprised, I guess less and less so,” Herman said, that when he asks social media service insiders what to expect from new products, they often reply, “I guess we’ll find out.”

Another member of that panel was Tow Center researcher Sara Watson. When moderator Jay Rosen, the media critic and New York University professor, asked her how to address this issue of “platform creep”—a term for platforms slowly, and perhaps insidiously, serving as publishers—Watson replied, “If I had the answer, we wouldn’t have this conference.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt