Journalism and Silicon Valley: The balance of power

What will journalism look like in five years? Print ads continue to decline, stripping newsrooms of their most robust revenue source. Much of the activity of publishing—packaging and distributing information—is moving off homepages and onto social platforms. Local government coverage in many places gets even more scarce. In five years, there may be fewer jobs, and and little accountability, for journalists.

What should it look like in five years? No matter what, it will depend on technology. In tandem with the launch of a report, “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism,” the Tow Center for Digital Journalism convened a West Coast panel of experts in San Francisco on Wednesday.

The big themes: algorithms determining what people read; the siphoning of revenue away from publishers; the concentration of power and decision-making in a small number of companies; and whether technology can support journalism without undercutting it. “Platforms want to think of themselves as neutral terrain,” but they are not, said Clara Jeffery, editor of Mother Jones. “How best to wield that great responsibility?”

Wired Editor Nicholas Thompson—whose habit was to follow stark statements about the state of journalism with an encouraging, “Let’s solve it tonight!”—was concerned about what type of content is incentivized by social platforms such as Facebook. Social media prioritizes content that gets liked and shared most over deeper reporting. They could shift this model, Thompson said. Even a decision to privilege true information over false would make a huge difference. What social media deems successful has even begun to affect trust in journalists. When a journalist becomes more politically vocal on Twitter, this bumps his or her brand in the short term.

There was some tension over whether algorithms are a bigger problem, or economics. Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center, countered by saying that the other major problem is the economic siphoning off of money from publishers to large platform companies. Newsrooms create the content that platforms make money off of. Publishers are spending more and more to create content that generates less and less revenue. “What journalism needs most,” said Mele, “is dedicated, smart people on the business side.”

And it’s not just Facebook that’s a problem. Twitter, Jeffery said, could have done a lot to implement better quality control on the platform. But they did little to nix abusive users—perhaps because the number of users was crucial for its IPO.

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We often assume the drive for revenue is a given for Facebook and other tech companies—and that this is part of the problem. But Jay Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication and the Director of the Journalism Program at Stanford, emphasized this is something of an illusion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, retains control of the company via a special class of shares—giving him the freedom to make decisions that are not economically motivated.

Joaquin Alvarado, CEO of The Center for Investigative Reporting, brought a populist edge to the conversation, calling for a consumer movement to hold both platforms and publishers accountable for the spread of propaganda, and to hold a voice in the debate over their own information and privacy. “We have a gigantic fight in this country over power . . . will the public have a say?” In the conversation about Facebook, Twitter, and Google, “Don’t forget about AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon,” Alvarado warned.

Alvarado also wants to make sure journalism jobs aren’t eroded further, and reminded the audience that accomplishing this is not an impossible task. Bringing reporters to the middle of the country again “isn’t a billion-dollar question, it’s a hundred-million dollar question.”

Jeffery pointed out Facebook has also benefitted larger traditional media companies over small ones, by allowing those companies to use the beta tools they are developing for publishers. Smaller media brands suffer for this.

Meanwhile, Justin Osofsky, VP of Global Operations & Media Partnerships at Facebook—the odd platform player at the panel—patiently played the optimist, rehearsing Facebook’s familiar line about innovation and its Journalism Project. He reminded everyone that there are four main values for the News Feed: for people to see content from their friends and family, to be informed, to be entertained, and a platform for all ideas. His cool tone was palpably different from the others, accentuating the difference between platforms and publishers more broadly.

In one of the more radical statements of the evening, Mele challenged publishers: “Ignore the platforms, build your own audience, and that will encourage better reporting.” The aspiration of that statement—and its impossibility—are where we are now.

Watch the archived Facebook Live stream here.

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Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.