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A Call for Cooperation Against Fake News

We — John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis — want to offer constructive suggestions for what the platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, Apple News, and others — as well as publishers and users can do now and in the future to grapple with fake news and build better experiences online and more civil and informed discussion in society.

Key to our suggestions is sharing more information to help users make better-informed decisions in their conversations: signals of credibility and authority from Facebook to users, from media to Facebook, and from users to Facebook. Collaboration between the platforms and publishers is critical. In this post we focus on Facebook, Twitter, and Google search. Two reasons: First simplicity. Second: today these platforms matter the most.

We do not believe that the platforms should be put in the position of judging what is fake or real, true or false as censors for all. We worry about creating blacklists. And we worry that circular discussions about what is fake and what is truth and whose truth is more truthy masks the fact that there are things that can be done today. We start from the view that almost all of what we do online is valuable and enjoyable but there are always things we can do to improve the experience and act more responsibly.

In that spirit, we offer these tangible suggestions for action and seek your ideas.

  1. Make it easier for users to report fake news, hate speech, harassment, and bots. Facebook does allow users to flag fake news but the function is buried so deep in a menu maze that it’s impossible to find; bring it to the surface. Twitter just added new means to mute harassment but we think it would also be beneficial if users can report false and suspicious accounts and the service can feed back that data in some form to other users (e.g., “20 of your friends have muted this account” or “this account tweets 500 times a day”). The same would be helpful for Twitter search, Google News, Google search, Bing search, and other platforms and other platforms.
  2. Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms. It happens now: Mouse over fake news on Facebook and there’s a chance the related content that pops up below can include a news site or Snopes reporting that the item is false. Please systematize this: Give trusted media sources and fact-checking agencies a path to report their findings so that Facebook and other social platforms can surface this information to users when they read these items and — more importantly — as they consider sharing them. The Trust Project is working on getting media to generate such signals. Thus we can cut off at least some viral lies at the pass. The platforms need to give users better information and media need to help them. Obviously, the platforms can use such data from both users and media to inform their standards, ranking, and other algorithmic decisions in displaying results to users.
  3. Expand systems of verified sources. As we said, we don’t endorse blacklists or whitelists of sites and sources (though when lists of sites are compiled to support a service — as with Google News — we urge responsible, informed selection). But it would be good if users could know the creator of a post has been online for only three hours with 35 followers or if this is a site with a known brand and proven track record. Twitter verifies users. We ask whether Twitter, Facebook, Google, et al could consider means to verify sources as well so users know the Denver Post is well-established while the Denver Guardian was just established.
  4. Make the brands of those sources more visible to users. Media have long worried that the net commoditizes their news such that users learn about events “on Facebook” or “on Twitter” instead of “from the Washington Post.” We urge the platforms, all of them, to more prominently display media brands so users can know and judge the source — for good or bad — when they read and share. Obviously, this also helps the publishers as they struggle to be recognized online.
  5. Track back to original sources of news items and memes. We would like to see these technology platforms use their considerable computing power to help track back and find the source of news items, photos and video, and memes. For example, one of us saw an almost-all-blue mapwith 225K likes that was being passed around as evidence that millennials voted for Clinton when, in fact, at its origin the map was labeled as the results of a single, liberal site’s small online poll. It would not be difficult for any platform to find all instances of that graphic and pinpoint where it began. The source matters! Similarly, when memes are born and bred, it would be useful to know whether one or another started at a site with a certain frog as an avatar. While this is technically complicated its far less complicated than the facial recognition that social platforms have today.
  6. Address the echo-chamber problem with recommendations from outside users’ conversational spheres. We understand why Facebook, Twitter, and others surface so-called trending news: not only to display a heat map but also to bring serendipity to users, to show them what their feeds might not. We think there are other, perhaps better, ways to do this. Why not be explicit about the filter-bubble problem and present users with recommended items, accounts, and sources that do *not* usually appear in their feeds, so The Nation reader sees a much-talked-about column from the National Review, so a Clinton voter can begin — just begin — to connect with and perhaps better understand the worldview of Trump voter? Users will opt in or out but let’s give them the chance to choose.
  7. Recognize the role of autocomplete in search requests to spread impressions without substance. Type “George Soros is…” into a Google search box and you’re made to wonder whether he’s dead. He’s not. We well understand the bind the platforms are in: They are merely reflecting what people are asking and searching for. Google has been threatened with suits over what that data reveals. We know it is impossible and undesirable to consider editing autocomplete results. However, it would be useful to investigate whether even in autocomplete, more information could be surfaced to the user (e.g., “George Soros is dead” is followed by an asterisk and a link to its debunking). These are the kinds of constructive discussions we would like to see, rather than just volleys of complaint.
  8. Recognize how the design choices can surface information that might be better left under the rock. We hesitate to suggest doing this, but if you dare to search Google for the Daily Stormer, the extended listing for the site at the moment we write this includes a prominent link to “Jewish Problem: Jew Jake Tapper Triggered by Mention of Black …” Is that beneficial, revealing the true nature of the site? Or is that deeper information better revealed by getting quicker to the next listing in the search results: Wikipedia explaining that “The Daily Stormer is an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist news and commentary website. It is part of the alt-right movement …”? These design decisions have consequences.
  9. Create reference sites to enable users to investigate memes and dog whistles. G’bless Snopes; it is the cure for that email your uncle sends that has been forward a hundred times. Bless also Google for making it easy to search to learn the meanings of Pepe the frog and Wikipedia for building entries to explain the origins. We wonder whether it would be useful for one of these services or a media organization to also build a constantly updated directory of ugly memes and dog whistles to help those users — even if few — who will look into what is happening so they can pass it on. Such a resource would also help media and platforms recognize and understand the hidden meanings and secret codes their platforms are being used to spread.
  10. Establish the means to subscribe to and distribute corrections and updates. We would love it if we could edit a mistaken tweet. We understand the difficulty of that, once tweets have flown the nest to apps and firehoses elsewhere. But imagine you share a post you later find out to be false and then imagine if you could at least append a link to the tweet in the archive. Better yet, imagine if you could send a followup message that alerts people who shared your tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image to the fact that you were mistaken. Ever since the dawn of blogging, we’ve wished for such a means to subscribe to and send updates, corrections, and alerts around what we’ve posted. It is critical that Twitter as well as the other platforms do everything they can to enable responsible users who want to correct their mistakes to do so.
  11. Media must learn and use the lesson of memes to spread facts over lies. Love ’em or hate ’em, meme-maker Occupy Democrats racked up 100 to 300 million impressions a week on Facebook, according to its cofounder, by providing users with the social tokens to use in their own conversations, the thing they share because it speaks for them. Traditional media should learn a lesson from this: that they must adapt to their new reality and bring their journalism — their facts, fact-checking, reporting, explanation, and context — to the public where the public is, in a form and voice that is appropriate to the context and use of each platform. Media cannot continue to focus only on their old business model, driving traffic back to their websites (that notion sounds more obsolete by the day). So, yes, we will argue that, say, Nick Kristof should take some of his important reporting, facts, arguments, and criticisms and try to communicate them not only in columns (which, yes, he should continue!) but also with memes, videos, photos, and the wealth of new tools we now have to communicate with and inform the public.
  12. Stop funding fake news. Google and Facebook have taken steps in the right direction to pull advertising and thus financial support (and motivation) for fake-news sites. Bing, Apple, and programmatic advertising platforms must follow suit. Publishers, meanwhile, should consider more carefully the consequences of promoting content — and sharing in revenue — from dubious sources distributed by the likes of Taboola and Outbrain.
  13. Support white-hat media hacking. The platforms should open themselves up to help from developers to address the problems we outline here. Look at what a group of students did in the midst of the fake-news brouhaha to meet the key goals we endorse: bringing more information to users about the sources of what they read and share. (Github here.) We urge the platforms to open up APIs and provide other help to developers and we urge funders to support work to improve not only the quality of discourse online but the quality of civic discourse and debate in society.
  14. Hire editors. We strongly urge the platforms to hire high-level journalists inside their organizations not to create content, not to edit, not to compete with the editors outside but instead to bring a sense of public responsibility to their companies and products; to inform and improve those products; to explain journalism to the technologists and technology to the journalists; to enable collaboration with news organizations such as we describe here; and foremost to help improve the experience for users. This is not a business-development function: deal-making. Nor is this a PR function: messaging. This sensibility and experience needs to be embedded in the core function in every one of these platform companies: product.
  15. Collaborate in an organization to support the cause of truth; research and develop solutions; and educate platforms, media companies, and the public. This is ongoing work that won’t be done with a new feature or option or tweak in an algo. This is important work. We urge that the platforms, media companies, and universities band together to continue it in an organization similar to but distinct from and collaborating with the First Draft Coalition, which concentrates on improving news, and the Trust Project, which seeks to gather more signals of authority around news. Similarly, the Coral Project works on improving comments on news sites. We also see the need to work on improving the quality of conversation where it occurs, on platforms and on the web. This would be an independent center for discussion and work around all that we suggest here. Think of it as the Informed Conversation Project.

We will bring our resources to the task. John Borthwick at Betaworks will help invest in and nurture startups that tackle these problems and opportunities. Jeff Jarvis at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism will play host to meetings where that is helpful and seek support to build the organization we propose above.

We do this mostly to solicit your suggestions to a vital task: better informing our conversations, our elections, and our society. (See another growing list of ideas here.) Pile on. Help out.

To a faster — and distributed — web

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Last May, shortly after Facebook announced its Instant Articles, Google held its first Newsgeist Europe and I walked in, saying obnoxiously (it’s what I do): “Facebook just leapfrogged you by a mile, Google. What you should do now is create an open-source version of Instant Articles.” Richard Gingras, head of Google News, has long been arguing for what he called portable content. I had been arguing since 2011 for embeddable content: If content could travel with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached, then it can go to the reader rather than making the reader come to it.

Today, fairy godmother Google delivered our wish — thanks to Gingras, Google engineering VP Dave Besbris, and media partners inside and outside of Google’s European Digital News Initiative. Hallelujah.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) — as you can see from Google’s definition on Github, above — a simple way to dramatically speed up the serving of web pages (on mobile and on desktop) through several means, including:
(1) a shared library of web-page functions so that they can be cached and called and not downloaded with every new web page;
(2) the opportunity to cache content nearer the user — with Google or not and inside apps on user’s devices;
(3) the beginnings of advertising standards to get rid of some of the junk that both slows down and jumbles the serving of web pages; and
(4) the sharing of some functions such as gathering data for analytics.

Note that the publisher’s revenue (that is, ads), analytics (that is, user data), brand, and links stay with the content. Google emphasized again and again: It’s just the web, done well. It’s just a web page — but way faster. A link is no longer an invitation to wait. A link is just a next page, instantly and fully visible.

You can get a demo here. So far, it’s just a sample of about 5,000 new pages per day from the launch partners. Open that URL on your phone. Search for something like Obama. Go through the carousel and you should be amazed with the speed.

But I think AMP and Instant Articles are more than that. They are a giant step toward a new, distributed content ecology on the web … and a better, faster web, especially in mobile.

Here are a few ways I see this changing the way content operates on the web:

Imagine an aggregator like Real Clear Politics or an app like Nuzzel. Now, every time you click on a link, you have to load a browser and all the cruft around the content on a page. Now, the page — every page made to the AMP standard — can load *instantly* because the architecture and functionality of the page can be prefetched and cached and the content can be cached closer to the user — and the advertising and analytics will not be allowed to screw up the loading of the page. So the experience of reading an aggregation of content will be like reading a web site: fast, clean, smooth. If I were in the aggregation business, I would build around AMP.

Imagine starting a new media service without a web site but built around content meant to be distributed so it goes directly to readers wherever they are: on Twitter (via users’ links there), on Facebook (in a community there), on Nuzzel (through recommendations there), and elsewhere — via Reddit, Mode aggregation, Tumblr, etc.

Now there are a few key things missing from the AMP architecture that will be critical to business success. But they can be added.

The first is that user interest data needs to flow back to the content creator — with proper privacy transparency and consent built in! — so that the publisher can build a direct relationship of relevance and value with the user, no matter where she is encountered. That is more complicated but vital.

The second — and this is a lesson I learned working with shared content and thus audience in the New Jersey news ecosystem — is that we must value and reward not just the creators of content but also those who build audience for that content.

That’s a small matter of deal making. AMP is built with *no* need to make deals, which is critical to its quick adoption. You make your content AMP-ready and anybody can serve it instantly to their audiences with your business model (advertising, etc.) attached. But there’s no reason two publishers can’t make a separate deal so, for example, the Washington Post could say to the Cincinnati Inquirer: You can take our AMP-ready content with our ads attached but we will give you your own ad avail or we will give you a reward for the traffic you bring us and we can share a special, co-branded page. The Post is already getting ready to distribute all its content in Facebook. It is using its owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon to distribute itself, too. (Speculation is that these alone will have it leap past The New York Times in audience.) Why not use AMP and make deals to reward other quality news services on the web to be its distributor? That is the new newsstand. That is the new site-less web.

I also see the opportunity to make AMP-ready modules and widgets that can be collected and aggregated *inside* web pages.

This is a big deal. It’s not just about speeding up the web. It’s about unbundling the web and web sites. If we in media are smart in exploiting its opportunities and if AMP and Amazon and others gather together around a single set of standards — which is quite possible — if we add more data smarts to the process, this could be big for us in media or for upstarts in garages. Your choice, media.

AFTERTHOUGHT: How should Facebook respond? I would suggest they have nothing to lose by joining the standard so publishers can publish both ways. I would also suggest that Facebook can now leapfrog Google by helping publishers with interest data and user profiles — that is where the real value will be.

What Would Alphabet Do?

Eakins, Baby at Play 1876.jpg
You’d expect me to say this but Google’s transformation into Alphabet is a brilliant move that enables Page, Brin, and their company to escape the bonds of their past — They’re just a search company. Why are they working on self-driving cars and magical contact lenses and high-flying balloons? — and go where no one has thought they would go before.

To Wall Street and countless bleating analysts — not to mention its competitors and plenty of government regulators — Google was a search company, though long ago it became so much more. I don’t just mean that it also made a great browser, the best maps, killer email, an open phone operating system and some of the best phones, and a new operating system (and the damned fine computer I’m writing on right now) — and that it acquired the biggest video company and the best traffic data company. I don’t just mean that Google has for a long time really been the powerhouse advertising company.

No, Google long ago became a personal services company, the post-mass-market company that treats every user as a customer it knows individually. That is the heart of Google. When they say they “focus on the user and all else will follow,” they mean it.

But Google was also a technology company, working on projects that didn’t fit with that mission.

So this move lets Page and Brin move up to the strategic stratosphere where they are most comfortable. It lets them recognize the tremendous job Sundar Pichai has been doing running the company that is now “just” Google. It lets them invest in new experiments and new lines of business — cars, medical technology, automated homes, and energy so far, and then WTF they can imagine and whatever problems they yearn to solve. It lets them tell Wall Street not to freak at a blip in the ad market — though, of course, the vast majority of the parent company’s revenue will still come from Google’s advertising business.

A journalist asked me a few minutes ago whether there was any risk to the change. I couldn’t think of any then. I suppose one risk is that this will only freak out especially European media and regulatory technopanickers, who will now go on a rampage warning that — SEE! — Google does want to rule the world. But what the hell. They were going to do that anyway.

A few weeks ago at Google I/O, I had the privilege of meeting Page. To introduce myself, I said that I wrote a book called What Would Google Do?. “Oh, I remember,” he said with impish grin and then he asked: “What would Google do? I want to know.”

See, I don’t think even Larry Page knows what Google — er, Alphabet — will do. He is now setting himself up for discoveries, surprises, exploration, experimentation, and a magnificently uncertain future. Who wants a certain future? That’d be so damned boring. So horribly conventional.

Disclosure: I own Google — er, Alphabet — stock. And I now lust after Alphabet swag.

How (not) to interview

Here’s an object lesson for journalism students in the art of the interview.

Poor Sundar Pichai, the No. 2 at Google, sat down for an interview with a New York Times technology reporter, only to find himself bombarded with the same question a half-dozen ways, to wit: Aren’t mobile phones bad for us?

First question: “Do you see mobile phones heading down a path of social unacceptability? Do we have a problem of overuse?”

After acknowledging that phones can do good things — goddamned miracles, I’d say — the reporter came back to his plaint: “But then people start doing things like checking their email at dinner. Are there things Google is doing to return people to where they are and reduce the temptation to look at their phone?” Like everything else, isn’t this your fault, Google?

Sundar tried to politely deflect: “You’re asking questions that have nothing to do with technology. Should kids check phones at dinner? I don’t know. To me that’s a parenting choice.”

The reporter tried again. And then again: “As you have risen in the ranks at Google, have you noticed that people use their phones less in meetings with you?”

And again: “Have you done anything to ease back? I have a policy that I’m not allowed to walk around the house with my phone. It has to stay in one room.”

Oh, jeesh. I imagine the reporter getting Grandma’s telephone table from the front hall and tying an iPhone to it. Some of us would say that eliminating the need for wires was progress.

It’s not hard to see what was happening here: The same reporter had an “analysis” published the same day on devices and programs to get users to crack that addiction the reporter thinks we have to our phones. He interviewed Pichai and decided to make a blog post out of the transcript, giving us a window to the sausage factory. The writer wanted a quote for his story. So he did what reporters often do: He asks the same question over and over … until he gets the quote he wants for his story. That’s how interviews are too often held: to fill in a blank the writer has already made rather than really listening and being open to new information and new angles.

When a reporter does this to me, I finally say: You can ask the same thing as many times as you want but I’m not giving you the answer you want. Corporate executives trying to make nice can’t do that.

Playing leapfrog and werewolf with Google and Facebook

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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?

leapfrog

I, for one, welcome our new newsstand

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Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.

I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass. Here, I suggest how that could happen. For now, Facebook is allowing publishers to track some usage data. One thing at a time.

In Facebook’s blog post announcing the deal, its chief product officer, Chris Cox, says: “Fundamentally, this is a tool that enables publishers to provide a better experience for their readers on Facebook. Instant Articles lets them deliver fast, interactive articles while maintaining control of their content and business models.”

The post continues: “Along with a faster experience, Instant Articles introduces a suite of interactive features that allow publishers to bring their stories to life in new ways. Zoom in and explore high-resolution photos by tilting your phone. Watch auto-play videos come alive as you scroll through stories. Explore interactive maps, listen to audio captions, and even like and comment on individual parts of an article in-line.”

I await much gnashing of teeth over the deal. Actually, I don’t have to wait. My Twitter feed was peppered yesterday with fretting over Facebook and news, for example:

Sigh. What are we supposed to do: ignore the audience on Facebook, stomp our little feet, and take our balls and go home, expecting users to always follow us to our home pages? Last week, I had this discussion with my students, trying to get them to focus on the business terms of a negotiation with Facebook over embedded content. It was hard to get some of them past typical media emotions: not liking or trusting Facebook, worrying about rugs being pulled out in the future. These are deal points that can be negotiated. And at least Facebook wants to negotiate.

Indeed, at last, both Google and Facebook are ready to talk. Two weeks ago, Google signed a friendship pact with eight European publishers. Now Facebook has made its deal with nine — take that, Google! — publishers, not just in squeaky-wheel Europe but also in America: The New York Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed, NBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, BBC, Spiegel, and Bild. Note that the last one, Bild, is owned by Axel Springer, which has led the European war against Google, forcing it — and by extension, Facebook — to come to the table.

This is good news for news. At Facebook, the head of product — which is the center of power at a technology company — has made it clear that news matters to the company. Late last year, Facebook released new products for news media. Meanwhile, Google is promising to develop products with publishers and give grants for innovation and this weekend, it is holding its second Newsgeist summit in Europe (I will be there).

This is only a start. Further negotiation is needed to assure trust and more strategic benefit to news companies. And there is much serious discussion that must be held with these technology companies about their responsibility not to publishers but to society. For now these platforms are taking on the role of not only distributing but even editing the news the public sees. These are not easy questions with easy answers.

If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.

LATER: On Facebook, appropriately, my friend Emily Bell asks five questions about the Facebook deal. OK, I’ll take the quiz:

1. How much revenue will this return to NYT vs its other distribution strategies?

First, given that Facebook allows publishers to place their own ads on their content and keep 100% of that revenue, then on an article-by-article basis, the revenue should be a wash. Except that if the paper recognizes a big bump in incremental circulation, then this is additional revenue. If the paper chooses to let Facebook sell the ad and take a revenue share, then I assume it does so because Facebook can get higher revenue and thus it’s a revenue increase.

But, of course, the value isn’t only in the direct ad sales. It is also in the potential to start a relationship with a new customer leading to other revenue: traffic to and ad revenue from visits to the publisher’s site and, in The Times’ case, subscriptions. This is more unknown. I recently spoke with a publisher who started putting videos on Facebook — no revenue yet — but found that they drastically increase the number of people who follow the publisher there, which, it’s hoped, leads to more business in the long run. We shall see.

All this is why I think it’s vital that we begin calculating the lifetime value of individual users and relationships, so we can calculate all this.

2. Who bears the publishing risk for the pieces FaceBook publishes?

That’s a different question in the U.S. than elsewhere. In the U.S., we are blessed with a First Amendment for digital, Section 230, which gives Facebook safe harbor.

Legalities aside, we know that Facebook does take responsibility for policing content, including that from publishers, according to its community standards [as if there could be one standard for one community in the world — but that’s another discussion]. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was much discussion of Facebook penalizing the respected Scandinavian paper Berlinkse for photos with nudity appropriate both to its journalism and its culture. This, of course, is disturbing: Facebook as editor; Facebook as censor. This is why, as I suggest above, it is urgent that we have a substantive discussion with and about Facebook — and Google and Twitter — in regard to their roles potentially as gatekeepers. That is why they need to have more sophisticated voices inside their organizations to grapple with these significant issues.

3. How will it change the NYT’s digital journalism given that richer interactive presentations won’t work in this format?

But then again, Facebook is providing new functions appropriate to its platform. We must learn to present news appropriate to platforms, use cases, and user contexts. Katie Couric doesn’t do a thirty-minute show on Snapchat Discover; she delivers what is appropriate there. Same goes for this. The Times and these other publishers should find ways to present news in new ways for new uses.

4. How much data does the NYT get access to from FB?

This is *the* key question. As I made clear above and in earlier posts, I believe we in news *must* get information about our users that enables us to serve them with greater relevance and value and thus to extract greater economic value in return. Now I have heard people from *many* technology companies say in response to this idea that publishers wouldn’t know what to do with that data if they had it. True, tragically true. But therein lies an opportunity for these technologists: teach us in media how to build and serve and extract value from relationships with known individuals; cure us of our mass-media ways … please.

5. How much further is FB likely to go in turning itself from a platform to a publisher? Will it hire editors, other journalists etc?

Facebook, Google, Twitter, et should not and should not want to become publishers, in my view. It creates tremendous channel conflict. It invites antitrust scrutiny. It limits the scope of the content they can present.

That said, I do think that these companies need to import editorial sensibilities — particularly about professional standards and ethics and the issues outlined above. So far, that hasn’t worked terribly well. I do not think that editors should be imported as news cops or consultants. I think they should be integrated into the process of product development, where relevant, to bring a better sense of both the opportunities and the responsibilities.

And while I’m involved in a seminar with my friend, the good Prof. Bell, let me add this from her on Twitter:

My answer: Yes, or we are doomed.

Last weekend in the German magazine Focus, a guest commentator argued that publishers in Google’s friendship pact had made a Faustian deal with the devil. (I’d link to the article but I can’t because, like an riddle in an enigma, it’s trapped inside a paywall inside a PDF.) This professor is essentially urging journalists and publishers to become digital isolationists. I say that is both impossible and irresponsible. The means of production and distribution in media made a small oligopoly of rich and sometimes monopolistic owners sole proprietors of the entire chain of value, from reporting to presentation to production to distribution to sales. Well, my friends, those days are over. Over. Once again, we have no choice but to operate inside the new ecosystem of users’ choice and we have no choice but to find new ways to sustain our work. Somebody I know wrote a book about that.

ONE MORE THING: So Facebook’s Instant Articles are available only in iOS? Really, Facebook? Really? So what are the more than half of us using Android phones? Chopped liver? Shit. Here I defend the new product and I can’t even see it. Garg.

Google? Evil?

evil 1

A few folks on Twitter have asked for my reaction to the accidental sharing of an FTC staff report on Google, wondering whether it will cause me to eat Crow McNuggets given that I am known to defend Google against some of the frequent attacks against it.

It’s difficult to judge the entire FTC report based on the excerpts and reports written by The Wall Street Journal. I figured the best I could do would be to ask myself where I draw the line between evil and good, illegal and legal in the behaviors alleged against Google.

* * *

First, the coverage says that Google scraped content from Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other sometimes-competitors. Well, of course, Google scrapes content everywhere; that its Job 1. Scraping is no more illegal or evil than reading, just a helluvalot faster. Any site can stop scrapers at the door with robots.txt instructions. Once scraped or read, information itself cannot be copyrighted, so there is nothing evil or illegal about consuming, using, and repeating that information.

It does not violate copyright law to reuse the information itself so long as the use does not infringe on its creator’s presentation of it. In other words, I can read on Yelp that a restaurant is open until 10 p.m. and repeat that in a restaurant listing on my newspaper site without fear; it’s information. (Whether I trust the source of that information and whether I link to it are separate questions that are also worthy of discussion in regards to journalism, where we read and repeat for a living.)

I see nothing wrong with Google and other search engines scraping and retaining content from a site in their unseen databases for the purpose of analyzing that content to decide how to present links to it in search. It is in sites’ enlightened self-interest for that to occur.

I also see nothing wrong with quoting from these services’ content for the purpose of linking to them. I would call that fair use. This is the behavior at the heart of the fight with publishers in Germany, where the word “snippet” is now a legal term, though — like “fair use” — it is not and should not be precisely defined. This is also the behavior that is now being taxed in Spain — that is, those quoting and linking to sites are now required to pay those sites, whether the quoted sites demand it or not. This is what led Google to shut down Google News there. With this law, Spain has attacked the heart of the web.

Now here is where the line would be crossed: If Google republished these services’ content in whole and without permission, then that is a violation of copyright law and Google would be in the wrong. Google and Yelp have tussled over just this in the past; Yelp’s reviews appeared on then disappeared from Google’s Places pages. The Journal’s report says:

When competitors asked Google to stop taking their content, it threatened to remove them from its search engine.

“It is clear that Google’s threat was intended to produce, and did produce, the desired effect,” the report said, “which was to coerce Yelp and TripAdvisor into backing down.”

I can’t tell exactly what happened here. If Google did indeed threaten to stop listing Yelp in search if it stopped Google from wholesale republishing its content, then I would call that an improper use of its power: evil. But I am not sure that is what happened. Yelp disappeared from the Places pages (which since themselves disappeared) but Yelp stayed in search (that’s how I get to it all the time). So without more information, I can’t draw a verdict on this point.

* * *

The next question is whether Google favors its own services in search. I’ve long found this allegation odd. First, publishers routinely promote their own services and fail to promote competitors’. When European publishers attacked Google, they complained that when searching on “running shoes” one finds Google’s ads for its own shoe advertisers and partners atop the page. But I have pointed out that if you go to the “Schuhe” link on Bild.com — the largest newspaper in Europe, owned by one of Google’s betes noires — one finds no promotion of competitors’ offerings. On Google, one does indeed find ads from its shoe advertisers and retailers, clearly labeled, but then on the top screen one also finds links to their competitors in shoespace, Zappos and Nike.

Screenshot 2015-03-21 at 5.05.47 PM

And if one searches for “maps” one finds Google Maps first (they are the best) but then links to competitors Mapquest, Yahoo, and Bing. What publisher does that? Aren’t news organizations supposed to be impartial? Then under this doctrine shouldn’t People promote Us?

That’s an even odder expectation of Google: that it be impartial. I know of no law that decrees that search must be impartial. Hell, a U.S. district judge said that Chinese search engine Baidu had a First Amendment right to be partial and censor search results. I would find it even harder to define impartiality in search than I would in journalism. In fact, I want my search results to be partial, to favor quality, originality, authority, relevance (to my request and ultimately to me), and timeliness (when that is relevant). Impartial search would be noisy, spammed, useless search.

Also note that history’s first ads in search — on Bill Gross’ GoTo.com, which became Overture, which was acquired by Yahoo — featured paid placement in rather than merely alongside search. Indeed, Google had to pay Yahoo $300+ million in settlement for infringing on the patent for advertising in search from Overture. But along the way, it was Google itself that instilled in us the idea that ads should not appear in search and that one should not be able to pay for placement. So Google set that standard. Now it’s true that the FTC makes it living holding commercial entities to their own standards. But to be found guilty of such consumer fraud, Google must have made the promise to which it is now being held. Does it? In its principles, Google says ads should be relevant and labeled — and they are — but doesn’t say anything that I can find about impartiality.

Now if it’s true that Google purposefully and secretly downgrades competitors, I would find that to be a betrayal of the trust we hold in it: evil. I don’t know whether that’s proven here. If Google promotes its own sites without labeling that as promotion, I would find that hypocritical, but I also don’t know whether that is happening here.

* * *

The next allegation in The Journal’s report is that Google restricted advertisers from using data obtained while advertising on Google in campaigns placed on competitors’ services. I’m not sure precisely what this means but I will say that Google — a company that believes information should flow freely — should allow brands that have paid to advertise to use whatever intelligence they gain however and wherever they wish. More broadly, I have argued that point in posts about what both Google and Facebook could do for news, advocating a freer exchange of data about users and content. In any case, The Journal says Google revised its terms to “give advertisers more control over their own ad-campaign data.”

* * *

Finally, The Journal says (in an abbreviated graphic) that Google tried to restrict sites that did search deals from also doing deals with competitors, including Bing. I’d call that just stupid: a red cape for antitrust investigators. The Journal said one investigator cited a lack of evidence of this complaint.

* * *

Please keep in mind two things about this report. First, Journal owner Rupert Murdoch has what one might call in my impolite company a hard-on for Google. Second, a much more reasoned Washington Post report explains that the accidentally leaked report was from the FTC’s lawyers, who tend to itch for antitrust fights, while a separate report from the agency’s economists — who look for impact of companies’ behavior on consumers — argued against taking on Google.

Let’s also remember that it’s the market that made Google as big as it is. In Germany — the front line of the war against Google — the company has its second highest market penetration of anywhere in the world, 50 percent higher than in America. German consumers obviously use and apparently like Google and I must ask whether their media and government are in sync with them. Google argues — and I agree — that there are perfectly good alternatives for every consumer service it offers: Bing for search, Mapquest for Maps, Outlook for mail, and so on.

But — and this is a huge but — there is no easy alternative for advertisers. That is where I have long argued that Google is vulnerable to accusations of abuse of power. When it comes to which advertisers are deemed to be bad actors, Google wields the power of God. Some shopping comparison sites are pure spam and Google is right to ban them. But should we always trust Google to make that decision? I’ve suggested that Google should have a jury of commercial peers help with that judgment.

My bottom line: If Google secretly disadvantages quality — not spammy — competitors, that would be wrong. If Google presented others’ *complete* content without permission and ejected sites that resisted such wholesale copying from search, that would be wrong. But in the Journal report, I don’t see sufficient evidence of either act to definitively declare guilt. More to the point in the discussion of antitrust at the FTC and in Europe, I don’t see cause to break up the company.

The other day, I spoke at length with a European journalist who disagrees with me about Google, Silicon Valley, Eurotechnopanic, and regulation. She reflexively leapt to regulation as a necessary reaction to any company that grows “too big.” I asked her, as I ask many with whom I have this conversation, to show me the statutory definition of “too big.” The issue is not how big a company is but what it does with that size. The issue is not what a company could do with that power but what it does with that power. I also asked her to show me why I should trust government to do a better job managing these processes than the market. The market took care of Microsoft’s excesses, not the EU. And governments in Europe are doing much to damage the net, from the Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht to Spain’s link tax to the EU court’s right to be forgotten. I acknowledge that I sound like a libertarian when I say this but I will point out that I am a Hillary Clinton Democrat. But I do not favor regulation for regulation’s sake.

I sometimes wish Google would fuck up more so I could criticize it more often. I have criticized Google. But I have defended it because I generally find it to be a good company and because it is often the whipping boy for those who would attack not just Google but the net and its disruption as well as American technology companies. If on the basis of the Journal report you want to see me repudiate Google and call for its dismembering, sorry.

The crow flies. It doesn’t fry tonight.

crow in flight

Journalism & technology: to duel or dance?

I have a yes-but relationship with Emily Bell. I say yes to most every brilliant thing she says but sometimes am foolish enough to add a but.

Go read Emily’s important speech on journalism’s relationship to technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. I will say yes to her argument that algorithms that determine distribution spring from editorial decisions. I will say yes to her concerns about the implications of those formulae for journalism and an informed society. I couldn’t agree more with her endorsement of Zeynep Tufecki’s brilliant exploration of the issues surrounding open v. filtered communication for news: It’s Twitter’s openness, its immunity from gatekeepers either algorithmic or editorial, that allowed news from Ferguson to emerge online before it emerged on the news. It’s Twitter’s openness that also makes it a Petri dish for trolls, harassers, and terrorist beheading videos. I say yes to Emily’s reminder that the platforms we’re discussing are still very new; the Jell-O is still warm and formative.

But I would remind readers that it was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations? We have Murdoch. They have Uber.

I would remind us all that the craft of journalism and the business of news have had 20 years — an entire generation — since the introduction of the commercial web to understand that they should be about more than manufacturing content to fill products and messages to feed to a public that didn’t necessarily ask for them. We have had 20 years to learn to serve people as individuals with relevance and value as Google does; and serve communities with tools to gather, share, and interact as Facebook does; and serve advertisers with greater efficiency as both of them do. And we didn’t. Can we yet learn to create our own technology? We’re not so young as Silicon Valley. Based on our miserable performance thus far, I have my doubts.

I strongly agree with Emily that there must be a discussion about the ethics and principles of the algorithms that distribute, filter, and thus shape the information that cascades over us, now that everyone can publish and share. But my first reflex is not always to build our own; see the prior two paragraphs. My first reflex is to help Silicon Valley define evil and good. As journalists we have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society; that’s our skill, no? I agree with Emily that this is an issue that matters. So let us start there.

Emily and I were both at a — I choke at the label — unconference at Arizona State’s journalism school last week called #Newsgeist. It was convened by the Knight Foundation (which funds both of our work) and Google. I jumped at the chance to join a discussion that I and others had proposed, asking: What could Google do for news? There were many suggestions around the distribution — the embedding — of news in containers that news creators can control and benefit from; around advertising and data; around security.

I now wish that Emily had raised and I’d have seconded a suggestion to convene a discussion with Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al to grapple with the issues she as well as Zeynep and others raise about the ethical issues presented by both filters and openness.

I would remind us all that just because we in the news business used to control the entire chain of news — from deciding what was news to deciding how to cover it to writing the stories to packaging those stories to manufacturing their container to distributing the container to setting prices for both readers and the advertisers who subsidized us — there’s nothing to say that we can or should continue to maintain that vertical hegemony. The web demands and rewards specialization. We now work in ecosystems that demand and reward collaboration.

I chose to write this on Ello, which was built as a protest against Facebook’s power. Bravo for that. But we know that no one will discover it there. I have but one follower, the one who invited me at my request to join the platform. I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now. What I have to say will resonate or not depending on whether anyone thinks this falling tree is worth listening to. An algorithm may or may not help that along. That is our circumstance.

I won’t discourage any journalist from building technology — I encourage many of my entrepreneurial students to gather teams with technologists to do just that. But I am not ready to pin my hopes for the future of journalism on the unicorn much sought after and PowerPointed at #Newsgeist: the elusive hack-hacker, the programmer-journalist.

I am certainly not willing to pin my hopes on government regulation. I’ll soon have an essay published in Germany in which I take my journalistic colleagues there to task for running to government to attack Google et al because they could not reimagine their craft and business in our new circumstance, bringing forth an avalanche of unintended consequences: bad regulation, bad law, bad precedent. But I also take Google to task for not doing more to rethink the task and responsibility of informing society.

I agree with Emily that we must report, report, and report with the skepticism many — especially the technology press — have let slip away. I’m worried about the journalists who have criticized Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith for reporting on Uber’s idea to perform opposition research on PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. I’m worried about the journalists who criticized the Guardian for reporting on Whisper’s — not to mention the NSA’s — dubious doings. The critics fear that Buzzfeed and the Guardian will ruin it for the rest of them — that is, cut off their access to technology’s powerful. The new inside-the-Beltway is the inside-the-101-and-280. What’s insidious in both is journalists’ desire to be inside.

But skepticism need not beget cynicism. I can well be accused of being too optimistic about technology and its makers. I do that to counteract what I see as the Luddite reflex of too many in my field — I’ll link to that German essay when it is published — to attack technologists as the enemy because they ruined the business for us. I think there is a chance to work together. I think we need to.

As a journalist and now an educator my response to the issues Emily raises has been to convene discussions with Silicon Valley about its responsibilities — not to us journalists but to the public we both seek to serve.