Platforms, publishers, and the uneasy alliance at the heart of journalism

At the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in 2014 we predicted that the most important relationship for publishers over the next three or four years would be with the social platforms.

It is satisfying to know we were right about that: Platforms and publishers are more enmeshed than ever before.

Since the 2016 presidential election and subsequent revelations about the spread of propaganda and the misuse of personal data, it has become an issue of global interest. In new research from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which tracks the relationship between news organizations and technology platforms, we see that this relationship is closer and more fraught than at any previous point, as platform companies are making more deliberate decisions which affect journalism and the placement and distribution of news.

Although our research produces strong evidence of publishers practicing a “conscious uncoupling,” to use Gwyneth Paltrow’s phrase, from platform dependency, there has been a very clear move among technology companies to become more involved in direct financial support for certain types of journalism and more editorially focused in their structures and functions. Questions of responsibility for civic discourse and democratic health have overtaken business models as the highest priority.

This shift, in aggregate, amounts to profit-driven platform companies sitting uncomfortably at the heart of journalism and news. It’s normal now for someone from a newsroom to be telling the platform which stories are coming up, along with sharing budget decisions.

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Journalists have to keep reminding themselves that however often they’re on Slack with platforms, these companies are much bigger than news—they’re involved in every aspect of civic life. If you’re a local newsroom propped up by Google money, how do you feel about investigating the contracts that Google is signing with your local schools, or your local city hall, or your local hospital, or wherever the company is proliferating software?

The Tow Center research, published today in a new report, “Friend and Foe: The Platform Press at the Heart of Journalism,” is the latest phase of a multiyear study into the relationship between journalism and technology platforms. The report is the product of three research elements: in-depth interviews from 44 newsrooms and six platform companies, two years of content analysis and data, and a spring 2018 newsroom survey of 1,100 working journalists, conducted in partnership with NORC and the American Press Institute.

Journalists have a conflicted relationship with social media platforms: While the vast majority of journalists said they had adapted practices in the newsroom in response to social platforms, an overwhelming number (86 percent) felt that social media had contributed to a decline in trust in journalism. But they still used those platforms vigorously, and seem to have responded positively to outreach efforts by Google, in particular.

Here are the key points from the report’s executive summary:

  • The apparent toxicity of the rhetoric toward technology companies in general, and especially toward Facebook, did not appear to diminish the amount of material publishers directed through social platforms. We have, however, seen a sharp adjustment from publishers away from creating material which lives entirely on third-party platforms. As publishers practiced a “conscious uncoupling” from social media’s influence, platform companies have intensified their own efforts to remain involved in shaping the future of journalism. Whether this is a long-term strategy or a public relations initiative remains to be seen.

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  • Of the 12 news outlets we tracked over an 18-month period—CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed News, HuffPost, and Vox—the larger, better-resourced publishers consistently posted more content to a greater range of platforms. The smaller outlets were almost entirely focused on Apple News, Facebook, and Twitter. This was particularly pronounced at the three regional metros, the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Daily News. By the time of our final analysis, in March 2018, just one percent of posts made by these three local publishers went outside of Apple News, Twitter, and Facebook. This was, to some degree, in vain: Apple News promoted stories from almost no small outlets.
  • And larger publishers still have more access to platform partnership teams and product offerings than smaller and local publications. Local news publishers, in particular, have been hit hard by the loss of advertising revenue. It’s becoming clear that attempting to translate the advertising-driven business model of news publishing from print to digital by posting high volumes of content to social platforms and adopting platform-native products like Facebook’s Instant Articles—which more than half its original partners abandoned once payments to use it ran out—has been a failure. Newer efforts by technology companies, in particular Facebook, to help local journalism have not yet borne fruit, and in some cases have been counterproductive. For instance, even the Facebook News Feed algorithm change announced in January 2018 to prioritize interactions with local news caused a steep drop off in some outlets’ website engagement figures.
  • Platforms continue to shape both the style and substance of publisher content, either directly with financial incentives (Facebook has offered publishers substantial advertising credits on its platform to participate in product rollouts), or indirectly (Apple accepts pitches from publishers seeking to be featured in its news app). There are no signs that this will change. Since late 2017, when Apple announced a $1-billion budget for original programming, Facebook said it was ready to spend $3 to 4 million per episode of new programming, and Google-owned YouTube offered $2 to 3 million for the same, there has been a distinct pivot toward creating video content among the most well-resourced publishers we interviewed. One publisher told us that platforms were looking toward more “Netflix-style” deals and treating publishers like production companies.
  • Current platform strategies toward news publishing are being shaped less by market forces and more by a mixture of civic duty and fear of regulation. This is leading to the adoption of much more explicit “‘editorial” practices at tech platforms, including the hiring of more newsroom journalists, human moderators, and active engagement in strategies to elevate “higher-quality” news. This will inevitably lead to technology companies exercising a large influence in deciding which news publishers benefit from their environments, and what news consumers see in their feeds and search results.
  • Major concerns persist over the opacity of algorithm changes, the control of the relationship with audiences, corporate financial support for smaller-scale journalism, and the promotion and deletion or suppression of different types of news stories.
  • Half of our survey respondents said social media platforms (such as Facebook) strengthened the relationship with their audience, while 22 percent said it had weakened as a result of social media platforms; 56 percent of respondents said platforms should take “a great deal/quite a bit” of responsibility for financially supporting journalism; 76 percent of respondents said that Facebook wasn’t doing enough to “combat the problem of fake news and misinformation” on its platform, while 71 percent said the same about Twitter, and 65 percent about Google. Facebook consistently drew the strongest criticism from publishers in all areas of our research.

We anticipate much more investment from platform companies in curation, whether it is human or automated, and more resources directed at journalism practice. One unexpected outcome of the past two years of revelation and public debate about platform roles in news has been an expeditious cultural shift within platform companies themselves. Understanding the role technology companies play as publishers is key to holding them accountable, as their adoption of this role throws up new challenges.

 

We have to keep reminding ourselves however often we’re on Slack with them, these companies are much bigger than news and they’re involved in every aspect of civic life.

 

When Mark Thompson delivered a speech at the Open Markets Institute this week at an event co-sponsored by the Tow Center on the effects of monopolistic power on journalism, he blasted Facebook’s attempts to recategorize news in accordance to a “trust” metric assembled through its own ranking system:

We face an immediate threat here [to editorial independence], which is that Facebook’s catalog of missteps with data and extreme and hateful content will lead it into a naïve attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor in chief, prioritizing and presumably downgrading and rejecting content on a survey and data-driven assessment of whether the provider of the content is “broadly trusted” or not.

Thompson added that a plurality of views in open markets is how journalism best functions and that to feed transient majority views on trust back into an editorial decision-making process is “profoundly dangerous.”

Thompson’s remarks are symptomatic of themes that recurred in our research. As platforms gather speed in squashing fake news, developing artificial intelligence applications, and hiring moderators or curators to restore some kind of order to their own businesses, they are opening a new front for conflict with not just existing press organizations but with governments, businesses, and activist groups both in the US and across the world.

The underlying business issues for journalism and the long-term decline of advertising support have not gone away, but they have ceased to be the only issue for editorial organizations and journalists. The “partnerships” we heard so much about in our research, and the very surprising access and closeness between some news organizations and platform companies, have an added dimension that goes far beyond economic consequences for publishers—and into fundamental questions about the type of market structure and protections needed for the operation of a free press.

Previous research from this project can be read here.

The Platforms and Publishers project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; Open Society Foundations; Abrams Foundation; and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. 

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