Google and Facebook are our frenemy. Beware.

April 30, 2015

Google, Facebook, Twitter and any other social platform you care to name would at one time have gone to the corporate stake to defend the idea that they are not publishers or actively engaged in acts of journalism. Things are changing rapidly.

Google, eight major publishers across Europe, and a couple of trade organizations are forming a partnership with the declared aim of supporting high quality journalism.

The growing pact between large publishers of news and large platforms for social media is an alliance born out of desperation on the part of publishers and opportunity on the part of technology companies. Ultimately, there is little doubt that the largest news and information companies in the world will be formed out of a hybrid of these current entities. The latest Pew State of the News Media report demonstrates just how much news consumption is becoming mobile, and how much Facebook controls the display ad revenue in that space, claiming almost 40 percent.

Google has been exploring the benefits and drawbacks of publishing for some time; being an entity protected by the First Amendment and freed from the obligations of utilities can be useful. Taking on expensive publishing risk is less convenient. However, just as the temperature of regulation in Europe heats up, with the government always trying to rein in the giant search company, Google has maneuvered its friendly tanks up the drive and into the garage of publishing houses.

The new accord, which grew out of Google’s “Newsgeist” meeting in Phoenix, AZ, and a convening of publishers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calls for the Silicon Valley company to back three initiatives. First, a €150 million innovation fund for new “thinking in the practice of digital journalism,” unspecified “product development” focusing on “ads, video, apps, data insights, paid-for journalism and Google News,” and extra grants for research and education.

The European publishers who are joining the alliance are: from France, Les Echos; from Germany, FAZ and Die Zeit; from the Netherlands, NRC Media, from Spain, El Pais; from Italy, La Stampa; and from the UK, the Financial Times and The Guardian (declaration of interest: I am a board member of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian). Anyone is welcome to join any of the initiatives, says Google.

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Nothing looks very significant in terms of money committed or the defined goals, but the overall adjustment in body language between Silicon Valley and news publishers is already enormously significant.

First of all, this is a clear signal of Google saying explicitly that while it might not employ many journalists (yet) it sees itself as being in the news business–not an accidental platform through which news moves, but an active ingredient in shaping how journalism is formulated and consumed. In the meeting in Davos between the (entirely male) contingent of publishers and Google executives, the main complaint from publishers was that Google now often knows more about the publishing companies and their customers than they know themselves. Data about who reads or watches what for how long belongs to Google, who then sells it back to advertisers. The tenor of the meeting was that Google wanted to help make journalism better in part to improve its own services, and the publishers made the case this was only possible by fixing their business models.

Google is candid in saying, at least privately, that the constant regulatory pressure in Europe, often fueled by publishers, is one reason it’s extending resources to help. The European Commission has made clear it will look into Google’s dominance in the search market. Last year, the European Court of Justice surprisingly ordered Google to amend certain research results in accordance with a “right to be forgotten” ruling. Google needs more friends in Europe, but not as badly as legacy news organizations need help in navigating a present and a future they are still ill-equipped to face.

Last month, Facebook disclosed it was negotiating with a number of news companies in the US to embed video and text within its own site from major publishers including The New York Times, National Geographic, and Buzzfeed. This was in some measure a defensive move against Snapchat, a popular photo messaging site with teens, that has through its Discover channel delivered huge audience growth figures to partners such as the Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, and ESPN. Snapchat has also recently hired CNN’s Peter Hamby to be its director of news, although it is yet to be seen how newsroom skills can transfer to a technology platform.

Talking to editors in a number of companies involved in the discussions (none of whom wanted to talk on the record) there is a sense of mildly suppressed panic about these deals: Almost no one wants to do them, but it is for many of them worse to not be involved in negotiations with the companies that now control the pathways to the audience. The principal attraction of agreeing to publish straight to Facebook is higher traffic, and potentially shared revenue. The drawbacks are higher degrees of dependency on systems over which publishers have no control and little insight.

Two weeks ago at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Andy Mitchell, head of Facebook’s news partnerships, held the line that Facebook itself was staying out of publishing, even though the evidence is very much to the contrary. George Brock, a professor at City University in London, asked Mitchell whether Facebook felt any responsibility for the integrity of its news feed. Mitchell gave the perfunctory Silicon Valley answer that the company cared about improving the “user experience.” Brock suggests that this denial of responsibility is insulting to audiences.

When I delivered the Reuters Memorial Lecture in Oxford last year, my theme was that of the growing imperative for some kind of detente between media companies and the Silicon Valley platform companies that now form the backbone of the free press. It is inevitable that we’re moving toward a closer relationship between companies that produce the news and platform companies that maintain plausible deniability when it comes to their role as publishers. The infamous Facebook news algorithm, the method by which it sorts and delivers stories into your News Feed, has also drawn increasing scrutiny. As these closed systems replace broadcast infrastructure and regulated media, how do apply accountability to commercial platforms?

A pressing question for Facebook and eventually for Google is who bears the publishing risk in this new world? When a story is found through a link, then the platform company has limited risk if challenges are made to the content. But when there is an explicit agreement to republish material on a platform built for virality, who bears responsibility for defending and protecting the journalism? Asking both Facebook and publishers directly the answer came back, “we are still working through these issues.”

One thing is very clear, having spent many weeks listening to executives on both sides of the fence: No one really knows where this new, closer partnership approach is leading. During an interview last week at Columbia’s journalism school, Kara Swisher, a respected technology journalist whose website Re/code covers Silicon Valley, was asked if these types of deals would favor certain publishers: “They will pet you, then later on, when you are dependent on their traffic, they will start charging you. It’s a bad idea.”

That may be true, but the problem for publishers is the risk of looking the other way, when over 30 percent of US adults regard Facebook as a source of news for them, and when occupying a slot on Snapchat Discover can boost your mobile traffic by tenfold (according to one editor using the app). But if you avoid Facebook and Google, then the question becomes, what model do you have without such an alliance?

There is also the looming issue of what control the giant platforms will have over content, because what amounts to a “good experience” for a Facebook users is usually measured by factors such as how long something takes to load on their phone. Editorial priorities within news organizations, on the other hand, often compromise or don’t fully prioritize speed, in order to develop more richly designed or interactive stories. If news audiences are going to increasingly migrate to mobile social platforms, then Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and others will most likely promote what works over slower presentations. In this dynamic news organizations inevitably adapt to the requirements of the platform rather than the other way round.

And this is the unsettling message for the news business in these developments. The traffic to your stories, the pathways to audiences and even the shape of your newsrooms are changed by this new balance of power. The obscurity of how these systems and algorithms works has not been lifted by agreements that might raise advertising revenues. The locus of power in delivery and distribution of news has shifted, irrevocably, towards commercial companies who have priorities that often compete with those of journalism. The alternative is unclear, but must ultimately lie with news taking more responsibility for understanding the role of third-party technology and creating its own platforms in the future. How journalism will find the time or resources to do this is unclear, as the frenemy is already at the gate.

Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.