Legacy media diverge from digital natives in fight against Facebook, Google

After two decades of swimming in the deep and treacherous waters of the internet, the news business is looking for a regulatory lifesaver.

The announcement that the News Media Alliance is calling on Congress for permission to hold collective negotiations with the large platform companies is overdue. The free press, which is inherently anti-regulation in the US, is going to need regulation to help it turn the business models of digital advertising back in its favor. But the news business is not the homogenous industry it once was, and any move to tackle the dominance of platform companies will highlight differences between legacy media and digital natives rather than unite them.

It has long been clear that the news media is fractured and weak in the face of Google’s and Facebook’s strength, and that journalism, particularly at the local level, has been drained as a result of changes in the market. The Alliance’s statement on Monday said it was seeking an exemption to antitrust legislation that would allow publishers to negotiate en bloc with what the alliance calls the “digital duopoly.”

The free press, which is  inherently anti-regulation in the US, is going to need regulation to help it turn the business models of digital advertising back in its favor.

David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, said in the statement: “Quality journalism is critical to sustaining democracy and is central to civic society. To ensure that such journalism has a future, the news organizations that fund it must be able to collectively negotiate with the digital platforms that effectively control distribution and audience access in the digital age.”

If the News Media Alliance is successful in securing a rarely granted right to negotiate as a group with Google and Facebook, publishers will owe their thanks to Rupert Murdoch. No other media owner has the same influence in Congress as the octogenarian proprietor of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. His political capital is principally derived from his holdings in Fox News, rather than his news publishing business; it is the cable news channels that still hold sway with voters and their representatives.  

Murdoch’s presence as a key player in what promises to be a defining moment for both technology platforms and publishers is a good metaphor for the many ironies innate in the current news environment. You can, it seems, spearhead an initiative to reward the creators of original and quality journalism, while simultaneously running a cable outlet that regularly derides fellow members of the News Media Alliance as “fake news.” That The New York Times, which has fought bitterly with the Journal, will make common cause with Murdoch on this issue is a measure of how large a priority wringing concessions from technology companies has become for legacy media.

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The News Media Alliance represents around 2,000 news publishers, most of whom have newspaper businesses attached to them. It does not represent the new generation of digital natives: the Huffington Posts, Breitbarts, BuzzFeeds, and Vox Medias. Nor does it represent other news organizations with vigorous Web presences but roots in broadcasting: CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC. A number of digitally native publishers I contacted about participation in the Alliance had either never heard of it, or had not been asked to join and were not sure they would join if they could.

Two weeks ago, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti gave an interview to UK media outlet The Drum that seemed to both anticipate and dismiss any future lobbying effort by media companies. He explicitly stated it was the fault of legacy publishers that they are subservient to platforms: “A lot of the traditional media players are opportunistically attacking Facebook and Google because Facebook and Google have figured out a better model for delivering information and entertaining people which is real-time, personalized, shareable and global—all these things that you can’t do in broadcast and print.”

Peretti went on to say that it was the foresight of technology companies that made them successful, and the short-term focus of media companies on servicing shareholders and quarterly bottom lines that set them adrift in the current environment. This version of history is as selective as the narratives of legacy publishers about the recent past. But Peretti’s attitude is also a sign of how many versions there are now of the news business, and how ill-defined the markets they occupy have become. It is hardly surprising regulation has totally failed.

How journalism got to this point is less important than what will help it survive in the future. One vision of the future says a far closer relationship between publishers and social media is necessary. Facebook, with its many worthy efforts to embracing the news industry, is part of this, as are publishers who happily use Facebook’s platform to stream their live video. Another version says there must be a necessary separation of journalism from a compromised and opaque system of power that often works as part of the surveillance state, and which has commercial priorities that can clash with the public interest.

The moment is right to appeal to the founders of technology companies who appear both stunned and radicalized in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Washington Post, the Times, and the Journal might have a common purpose, but they are at odds with different types of news organizations, like BuzzFeed, that are opportunistic in their own relations with the digital duopoly. Such publishers rely heavily on the  symbiotic relationships they have carefully cultivated with the platforms.

Mark Thompson, chief executive at the Times, positioned the lobby as a measure to collectively save journalism rather than boost the Times’s share price. The use of quality journalism as a rallying cry is timely and potent. The moment is right to appeal to the founders of technology companies who appear both stunned and radicalized in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency.

If Congress grants an exception to legacy news publishers to pressure Google and Facebook, it might lead to the kind of concessions publishers have won in Europe. In the US, pressure on Facebook and Google has been successful in helping publishers gain traction, but the culture of European publishing and the vigor of its regulatory environment is totally different from the free-market roots of the US news industry. Whatever the outcome, a larger question remains about the right relationship between journalism and the most powerful companies in the world. This is a long-term issue, which is unlikely to be settled by one group or cartel gaining regulatory concessions but, rather, by a more profound change in the regulatory and commercial environment.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.