Newsgeist un-conference: Facebook faces the music, sort of

Newsgeist, which was held this past weekend in Phoenix, is an unusual animal. It’s invitation-only, co-sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation (which helps fund CJR), and aimed at bringing journalists and academics and others involved in media together for an “un-conference.” That means there aren’t any sessions organized in advance: Attendees put their suggested topics on index cards, then the organizers group them, and select which ones get assigned to different rooms at Arizona State University’s journalism school (anyone whose idea isn’t chosen can also use a free room to host a discussion). The event operates under the so-called Chatham House Rule, which states that any information from the conference can be used or published, but no one can be quoted by name without their explicit permission.

The ideas at the most recent version of the conference ranged from the technical (“New Formats For Storytelling”) and the opinionated (“How Do We Atone For the Harm We Have Caused?”) to the somewhat whimsical (“Pulsing, Useless Anger: How Do We Deal With It?”), and everywhere in between. But as there have been for the past couple of years, there were a number of suggestions that boiled down to “What Should Facebook Do?” In other words, what should Facebook do for journalism? (There have also been a number of “What Should Google Do?” panels over the years, but they’ve been less confrontational, perhaps in part because Google helps to fund the conference and many senior Googlers are usually present).

This year’s version of the Facebook panel, which was moderated by someone who works at Google, included two fairly senior staffers who work at the giant social network, one on the technical side and one on the media relations side. They talked about how to make “quality” journalism easier to find while also down-ranking misinformation in the News Feed. Many of the suggestions from the audience revolved around improving the algorithm, but one participant (who must remain nameless) raised a contentious issue: Why was Facebook even interested in quality of journalism? Without knowing the company’s motivations, he suggested, it’s impossible to determine whether its goals are aligned with those of the press.

This exchange led to a long, awkward pause. But it’s a fair question. Publishers should know whether Facebook’s impetus for paying attention to journalism is to boost engagement metrics and keep people on its platform longer or if Facebook’s motivation has more to do with avoiding possible federal legislation or more uncomfortable appearances before Congress.

The two Facebook staffers said their sole aim was to improve the experience for users, who might be tempted by false information, but over the long term might prefer higher quality information. This wasn’t an entirely satisfactory answer; it still puts Facebook in the position of wanting quality journalism primarily to keep users happy and loyal to the service. This is at odds with the reason journalistic outlets publish things—to inform the public. Or, to put it another way, it’s the equivalent of a publisher who prints stories primarily in order to sell newspapers. Although Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has talked in the past about his commitment to quality information as a social good, it’s unclear how this is balanced with his company’s commercial or financial goals.

Other panels that sparked debate included one about whether the blockchain can help save journalism—a session that saw at least one F-bomb thrown by attendees, and one that seemed particularly relevant given the ongoing token sale by Civil, the blockchain-powered platform for independent journalism that seems likely to fall short of its minimum $8 million fundraising goal. Other popular topics included artificial intelligence, how to fight misinformation, the need for diversity—including a a great lightning presentation from Heather Bryant—and the shift towards reader revenue through subscriptions and membership.

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And as a kind of ironic metaphor for the industry’s current situation, during one panels every cellphone started ringing or vibrating simultaneously with an emergency alert. It was about high water levels in the Phoenix area due to a tropical storm, but it could just as easily have said: “Warning: We have detected declining levels of revenue and trust in the media industry. Please move to a safe location and await further instructions.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.