Playing leapfrog and werewolf with Google and Facebook

First Google made its friendship pact with eight old, European publishers, vowing to innovate together. Then Facebook leapfrogged Google — by a considerable distance — launching its Instant Articles with nine publishers, old world and new, inviting them into its mobile News Feed and helping them make money to boot. Now it’s Google’s turn to leapfrog Facebook. We like this game.

That opportunity for publishers — to build upon these positive steps — is what I, for one, emphasized this weekend in more than one session at Google’s excellent gathering in Helsinki, Newsgeist Europe, an unconference where we the participants chose what to talk about. Among other topics, we chose to talk about what Google could do for news, about Facebook as the new distributor — and sometimes editor — of the news, and about at least one idea to take advantage of that new reality.

That idea is something Google News chief Richard Gingras and I advocated at the last Newsgeist in the U.S., something I’ve been working on for years: the containerized, embeddable article that travels to any site with brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached. In other words, let’s take what Facebook has done with Instant Articles and open it up to any creator and any embedder. I was delighted to hear serious discussion of the notion at this Newsgeist, opening the door to reimagining the distribution of news so that instead of always requiring and depending on our users to come to us, we can now take our news to them.

Now there are many many issues and questions around this model, and you can count on a circleful of journalists to raise them all: how distributed news affects the business of journalism and how both creators and distributors can share in the value they make; the power and responsibility our new distributors hold over the dissemination of information and whether they will act as protectors of news or as censors or catalysts for cat lists; whether creators will get the specific user data they need to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve (that is the key issue, I think).

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we will recognize that the horse — and the article — have left the barn. Facebook was already a primary source of audience — links and clicks — for news. Now it will be a key distributor of complete content. You can bet that others will follow, taking what they already have — Twitter with its cards; Snapchat with Discover; Amazon with the Washington Post on its Kindle; Google and Apple with their newsstands — and finding ways to embed content with business model attached into the streams they deliver. Note also that we could find ourselves in a nightmare of publishing content 20 ways on 20 platforms using 20 CMSes in 20 business deals that we don’t control, struggling to make sense of too little data from each.

Publishers could take the lead and create open-source standards and structure for distributed news. But news publishers have proven to be awful at collaborative consortia (see: NCN) and worse — much worse — at technology. And this is no trivial task, as Repost.US learned when it couldn’t sustain its wonderful rendition of the embeddable article (for reasons I explore in Geeks Bearing Gifts). If we’re going to do this, we need help.

Who will help? I suggested Google, which could build the structure openly, adding its own services — ad sales, ad serving, hosting — as options. In the discussion, some feared that Google’s direct involvement beyond funding the project out of its European bribery — er, I mean innovation — fund would give the service cooties. Gift horse: mouth. Well, then Facebook could open up its lovely platform and CMS and make it possible to embed Instant Articles anywhere.

Note well the position that news publishers are in now. And a fine position it is: Google, Facebook, and potentially other powerhouses are finally competing for our affection to keep the wolves — that is, European regulators — at bay.

It’s metaphorically convenient that the favorite recreational activity at Newsgeists is a game called werewolf, which is all about mistrust. Suspicion has been the basis of the relationship between publishers and platforms. That atmosphere of wariness and warring was brought on by a campaign waged against Google by German publishers Axel Springer and Burda, using their considerable political clout to enlist politicians to pass laws and launch antitrust investigations disadvantaging the American technology giant. Google’s peers — Facebook, Amazon, Apple — are well aware that Old Europe’s pitchforks could be launched at them next. So though I did not like the tactic — because it is leading to dangerous if unintended consequences that could imperil an open net as well as European innovation — I must give credit where credit is due, to Springer and Burda, for bringing Silicon Valley to the table if not to its knees. Credit to Google and Twitter for talking. Credit to the publishers that are working with each, seeking peace in the kingdom. Group hug.

Now the game shifts from werewolf to leapfrog. Now we in journalism get to stand back and see technology titans jump over each other to bring benefits to news. But we’d best not stand back too far. We journalists and publishers must collaborate with the platforms as we demand that they collaborate with us. And as they teach us about technology, we must teach them about journalism.

By that, I mean that as platforms take on the role of distributor and (I lament this word) gatekeeper for news, we must help them understand the responsibility they are assuming. Mark Zuckerberg cares about a connected society. Does he also care about an informed society? I believe he does — witness his proper pride at seeing his platform being used by freedom fighters. Now Facebook must find the courage to publish and protect uncomfortable news, for real news, impactful news is almost always difficult news. It must fight to be open to diverse and often dissenting voices and viewpoints in the face of pressure from censors and tyrants, which will surely grow now that Facebook is carrying more news that matters. And as Facebook benefits from the content — the journalism and service — that publishers provide, then it does bear some responsibility to consider their business needs (and I’m delighted that Facebook did just that, offering publishers revenue with distribution via Instant Articles).

My friends Emily Bell, Jay Rosen, and George Brock have written about these concerns, as have I. I don’t think any of us would expect Facebook to produce all the answers overnight; indeed, we should not want them to make these decisions alone. What we do expect of Facebook, Google, and the other platforms is an open and substantive conversation about these principles. And they should expect from us a spirit of generosity and collaboration. We all now recognize that we live together in an ecosystem of information, technology, and service. We must build and maintain it together.

Unconferences, innovation funds, education, and especially new products like Instant Articles will help do that. But group hugs aren’t enough. We don’t just need to embed articles. We need to embed and educate people on both sides of this cultural divide who can understand and translate the differences and, more important, find opportunities of mutual benefit. These are not merely ambassadors doing biz dev and PR. They don’t just make each side smarter. They must make shit happen. They must build things. That means having technologists in the management of news companies and journalists in the product stream of technology companies.

I can imagine countless ways in which collaborative technologists and journalists can build great services for the public we serve. Traveling articles are just one example, a starting point. There were others raised at Newsgeist.

At this point, I know what many will say in the comments wherever links to these thoughts appear: “Well, I just don’t trust Facebook/Google/etc.” “They will pull the rug out from under us.” “They will never do what we want.” “They will serve their own interests.” Well, of course, they will serve their interests. They are businesses. But it’s no longer accurate to say that they cannot also benefit us or that they will not listen. Who’d have imagined — many at Newsgeist confessed they couldn’t — that Facebook would not only invite publishers into its precious stream but also let them keep 100% of the ads they sell for the privilege. Who’d have imagined that even Springer’s Bild would sign up for the deal? Who could have pictured the warm and substantive interaction of journalists, publishers, and Googlers this weekend in Europe?

The sensible, mature, productive way to enter negotiations is not to stomp away. The smart thing to do is to craft business terms. That’s what I teach my students. What would make you do a deal with the titans now that they are willing to talk? What would protect you against your concerns? What do you have that they want and what do they have that you want? Where is their mutual benefit for your businesses and — here’s the only thing that matters in the end — for the people we all serve?