A Crisis of Cognition

In journalism, we think our job is to “get the story.” We teach the skill of “knowing what a story is.” We call ourselves “storytellers.” We believe that through stories — or as we also like to say when feeling uppish, “narrative”— we attract and hold attention, impart facts in engaging fashion, and explain the world.

My greatest heresy to date — besides questioning paywalls as panacea — is to doubt the primacy of the story as journalistic form and to warn of the risk of valuing drama, character, and control over chaotic reality. Now I’ll dive deeper into my heretical hole and ask: What if the story as a form, by its nature, is often wrong? What if we cannot explain nearly as much as we think we can? What if our basis for understanding our world and the motives and behaviors of people in it is illusory? What would that mean for journalism and its role in society? I believe we need to fundamentally and radically reconsider our conceptions of journalism and I start doing that at the end of this post.

Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke, pulled this rug of storytelling out from under me with his new book How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. In it, heargues that the human addiction to the story is an extension of our reliance on the theory of mind. That theory holds that in our brains, humans balance beliefs and desires to decide on action. The theory, he explains, springs from lessons we as humans learned on the veldt, where we would mind-read — that is, use available information about our environment and others’ goals and past actions to predict the behavior of the antelope that is our quarry; the lion we are competing with; and our fellow tribesmen with whom we either compete or must trust to collaborate. “Since mind readers share their target animals’ environments, they have some sensory access to what the target animals see, hear, smell, taste, and so on,” Rosenberg says.

Humans in the bush became proficient at predicting the immediate behavior of other animals and humans, which led their literate descendants to believe they could not only predict behavior in the now but also explain the past. Rosenberg questions historical narrative, pointing out that if we really could ascertain the motives of actors in the past with verifiable accuracy, there would not be so many books with dueling theories as to why the King or Kaiser did this or that. The theory of mind also fails when trying to predict human behavior ahead of time — just look at how awful political pundits are at foretelling elections. Rosenberg writes:

The progression from a (nearly) innate theory of mind to a fixation on stories — narrative — was made in only a few short steps. We went from explaining how and why we did things in the present, to explaining how and why we did things in the past, to explaining how and why others did things in the present, then the past, and finally to explaining how others did things with, to, against, and for still others.

Voilá narrative.

And we love narrative. “Neuroscientists have shown that hearing a story, especially a tension-filled one in which the protagonists’ emotions are involved, is followed by the release of pleasure-producing hormones such as oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm…” (Indeed, research showsthat oxytocin improves “mind-reading” in humans.) Rosenberg says later: “Narratives move us. In fact, they move entire nations.” (See: Edward Bernays Propaganda.)

But Rosenberg’s coup de grâce against the theory of mind — and the basis of his book — is that neuroscience cannot find a sequence in the brain that balances stored beliefs with desires to arrive at a behavior. He writes that “the theory of mind and neuroscientific theory turn out to be logically incompatible.” I will leave it to you to buy his book and read his detailed scientific explanation of meaning and memory, of neurons and content, of rats’ brains and humans’. For the sake of this brief provocation, suffice it to say that neuroscientists’ observation of the brain does not confirm the theory of mind, the fundamental belief about human behavior that informs our every speculation about motives and actions in the stories we create.

What, then, of the first draft of history?

If that is Rosenberg’s view of history, I wondered what his view would be of the first draft of history — journalism. So I emailed to ask him and he kindly responded, observing that journalists “keep asking the question ‘how did you feel about…’ that invites the interviewee to roll out the beliefs and desires that drove their actions.” He acknowledges that our business model drives us to attract large audiences “in the face of the public’s demands for a good story.” Indeed, Rosenberg himself admits he is a sucker for a good story; we all are.

So what do we turn to instead of the story? “My message isn’t that journalists have to work harder to dig out the real motives behind the actions they report,” Rosenberg emailed me. “It’s that they need to change their target and their approach to it. Stop trying to explain what people do as actions driven by motives, and start taking on major social trends and figure out how the structure of cultural variation and selection imposes outcomes.”

In a panel about the seduction of storytelling I organized at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I was asked to reread that last sentence of Rosenberg’s email three times, so boggling is it for us storytellers. Rosenberg is on one level saying that we journalists should focus on issues and trends over personalities and predictions — something friend Jay Rosen argues often. In that panel, Rosen said that the report, the discussion, and the investigation are more reliable units of journalism than the story and our skill is more verification than storytelling. But on a more foundational level, Rosenberg is warning in his email — as he does in his book — that society’s progress is a product of natural selection and that we are all subjects in a giant matrix of game theory. That is to say that journalists or historians cannot predict or explain human behavior based on motive or purpose but instead should analyze changes in society based on the harsh reality of natural selection and survival of the fittest: life as a nasty, brutish competition. Sounds about right, eh?

To put this worldview in greater context, Rosenberg says that Newton robbed us of our belief that the universe had purpose — divine purpose — and was instead ruled by laws of nature and science. Darwin did likewise regarding biology on earth, robbing evolution of grander purpose in favor of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Now, Rosenberg says, neuroscience robs us of our belief in our own purpose. “Neuroscience has shown that, despite their appearance, human behaviors aren’t really driven by purposes, ends, or goals,” he writes. Yes, we appear to have a goal when we choose one path versus another, but Rosenberg argues that decision could be determined by patterns in memory — experience or instinct — or rewards. “As in all the rest of the biological domain, there are no purposes, just a convincing illusion of purpose,” Rosenberg says. “Neuroscience is completing the scientific revolution by banishing purpose from the last domain where it’s still invoked to explain and predict.”

The more we know, the less we can explain

Let that last notion about banishing purpose from our lives sink into your epistemological guts, then I’ll deliver another swift kick, courtesy of my friend David Weinberger, coauthor of the seminal work of web culture from exactly 20 years ago this month, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and author of Small Pieces Loosely JoinedEverything is Miscellaneous, and Too Big to Know. His new book, Everyday Chaos, is out in May (on May 15 he and I will be discussing it in New York; you can reserve a seat at that link and preorder the book now).

In Everyday Chaos, Weinberger examines the implications of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other data-fed and algorithmically driven means of predicting events and behaviors. Says Weinberger, even simple A/B testing “works without needing, or generating, a hypothesis about why it works.” In other words, data and formulae can predict human behavior more accurately than fellow humans can, relying as we do on our theory of mind and storytelling. These machines cannot be expected to always provide explanations; they sometimes simply predict what will happen without having to say why. So much for the fifth W of journalistic ledes. Weinberger writes:

Deep learning’s algorithms work because they capture better than any human can the complexity, fluidity, and even beauty of a universe in which everything affects everything else, all at once.

As we will see, machine learning is just one of many tools and strategies that have been increasingly bringing us face to face with the incomprehensible intricacy of our everyday world. But this benefit comes at a price: we need to give up our insistence on always understanding our world and how things happen in it.”

Yes, machine learning may enable us to better predict cancer or market movements or traffic accidents, saving time, money, even lives. Weinberger says: “Our new engines of prediction are able to make more accurate predictions and to make predictions in domains that we used to think were impervious to them because this new technology can handle far more data, constrained by fewer human expectations about how that data fits together, with more complex rules, more complex interdependencies, and more sensitivity to starting points.” But with that benefit, we need to give up on our belief in stories and the theory of mind, not to mention our reliance on always being able to uncover knowable laws. We need to give up on our expectation of explanation for why things happen — even for why we do things.

Returning to Rosenberg, he sent me another piece he wrote in which he said that artificial intelligence algorithms work like our brains, “employing a Darwinian learning algorithm and so do we.” But that process of testing possible outcomes before deciding on one does not bring insight or explanation. “When success is a matter of tinkering, trying anything and seeing what works, there is no scope for insight, no need for it.”

In all of this I see a coming crisis of cognition. If change and uncertainty have led us to the apparent crisis of civilization we are seeing today — with the powerful (white, male) incumbents fearful of their dethroning by alien man or machine — I shudder to think what happens to the public conversation when its fundamental grounding in the theory of mind and certainty of the neat narrative arc of the story is exploded.

I also shudder to think what becomes of media. Says Weinberger :

Why have we so insisted on turning complex histories into simple stories? Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. We shrank our ideas to fit on pages sewn in a sequence that we then glued between cardboard stops. Books are good at telling stories and bad at guiding us through knowledge that bursts out in every conceivable direction, as all knowledge does when we let it.

But now the medium of our daily experiences — the internet — has the capacity, the connections, and the engine needed to express the richly chaotic nature of the world.

Chaos is what journalism promises to tame. But journalism fails. It always has. The world is less explainable than we would like to admit.

Radical reformulation of journalism

Mind you, I’m not killing the story; it is too ingrained in literal DNA to extinguish. Let’s also be clear that the word “story” is overused in our field to refer to what should usually be called articles as well as topics.

I do, however, celebrate efforts to free journalism from the presumption of the story. This is why I am enthused about my current entrepreneurial student Elisabetta Tola’s efforts to demonstrate journalism in the scientific method. It’s why I am equally excited about Eve Pearlman’s efforts at Spaceship Mediato build journalism around the public conversation, not media’s content, as we teach at Newmark in Social Journalism. I am eager for more examples.

But Rosenberg and Weinberger inspire a more radical reformulation of journalism. Journalism requires a different starting point: not getting and writing stories to fill a Gutenberg-era product called a publication, not convincing ourselves and our public that we can summarize and explain their world in the neat confines of text, not merely saying what happened today or will tomorrow. Instead, I want to imagine a journalism that begins with the problems we see and reaches across disciplines to seek solutions. (You might expect me to turn to technology but, no, I am looking to academic fields of study that have much to teach us about the society we serve.) Thus a reimagined journalism would not act as gatekeeper but as bridge.

If, for example, we believe a key problem in society today is the demagogues’ demonization of The Other, then let us look to neuroscience for understanding of the instincts authoritarians exploit. See this article in Foreign Affairs by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky about our responses to group identity and threat. “Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter,” Sapolsky writes. “These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages.” But Sapolsky says we can realistically hope for change. “The Swedes,” he points out, “spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.” He continues: “Although human biology makes the rapid, implicit formation of us-them dichotomies virtually inevitable, who counts as an outsider is not fixed. In fact, it can change in an instant.” Thus the question is, how do we make outsiders insiders? Or as I’ve been fond of putting it, how do we make strangers less strange? This might mean enabling the outsiders to tell their stories (you see, I’m not unalterably opposed to stories). It might mean educating one group about another’s circumstances. It might mean bringing strangers together to model peaceful behavior. It might mean trying to get people to like each other more than our stories. (How about oxytocin levels as a metric to replace page views? [I’m joking…. I think.])

To understand and reflect communities to each other, we can turn to anthropology with its discipline of observation and evidence, which does not — as news stories too often do — take one person as the exemplar for a large, odd group (for example, The New York Times teaching us that white nationalists, too, eat at Panera). In his survey, Anthropology: Why it Matters, Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen decrees, “Taking others seriously is the first rule of my kind of anthropology.” Just like journalists, anthropologists grapple with the concept of objectivity, of distance from subjects, of exploitation of their stories. Ingold rejects objectivity. His purpose “is not to interpret or explain the ways of others; not to put them in their place or consign them to the ‘already understood’. It is rather to share in their presence, to learn from their experiments in living, and to bring this experience to bear on our own imaginings of what human life could be like, its future conditions and possibilities.” Ingold echoes the great journalism teacher James Carey when he talks about the primacy not of conclusions but of conversation.

This is not to catalogue the diversity of human lifeways but to join the conversation. It is a conversation, moreover, in which all who join stand to be transformed. The aim of anthropology, in short, is to make a conversation of human life itself. This conversation is not just about the world…. It is the world. It is the one world we inhabit.

In a sense, journalists ask, “How do they live.” Ingold says the question the communities ask is, “How should we live?” Enter the verb “should” and we turn to philosophers and ethicists, who pose larger questions about how we are treating each other today, about the kind of society we want to build, about how we see ourselves in how we treat others. Perhaps the journalist’s job then could be to ask factions of society to reflect on their own behavior or to give those excluded from power the opportunity to reflect themselves. For this, we have disciplines devoted to African-American, Latinx, women’s, and LGBTQ studies to help.

Let us say the problem to attack is our epistemological crisis and alternative facts. We could look to cognitive science to understand how misinformation lodges in the brain; see this article by a professor in that field, Julian Matthews of Monash University. Of course, we also need to look to education to understand how to dislodge misinformation and propaganda and install reason and facts. See also this excellent review by Daniel Kreiss of three books about the 2016 election, inspiring various solutions: One book, Cyberwar, measures impact by the Russians (and a solution may be to judge American media for its complicity and vulnerability); another, Network Propaganda, argues the problem is Fox News et al (and proposes, as I have, the need to fund responsible conservative competition); the third, Identity Crisis, says the problem is not epistemology but identity — our ongoing American identity crisis regarding racism (to which, of course, there is no simple solution).

Another heresy of mine is debating the value of news literacy because it is too media-centric — if journalism needs a user manual, then the problem is probably journalism itself — and is perhaps aimed at the wrong population: the young. Weeks ago, I wrote about an NYU/Princeton study that found it’s not kids who are sharing disinformation online but instead people who look like me: old, white men. I thought about writing a book for them — Dear Grandpa — and as I outlined the idea, I realized that the problem isn’t Grandpa’s parsing of facts but instead his anger. How did this privileged white man become so mad? We probably know the answer: Fox News and talk radio. But what made him so vulnerable to manipulation? For this, we should turn to psychology. Then we might decide that what we really need is not stories about political fights but instead massive group therapy: journalism as couch.

I could go on — and will in the future. But you get the point. We have been too insular in journalism, looking to ourselves for solutions to the field’s problem and defining that problem too narrowly as finding ways to maintain what we have always done. That’s why I so welcome Rosenberg’s and Weinberger’s challenges to our ways of thinking about our most fundamental ideas of ourselves as storytellers and explainers. With no rug underneath us, we are forced to reconsider everything: what society needs, what journalism should do, what journalism is. To do that, we need to listen outside of ourselves, to the communities we serve (and especially those we haven’t served) and to disciplines other than our own — all those I mentioned above plus design, economics, sociology, data science, computer science, engineering, criminal justice (or rather, just justice), law, public policy, and others — each of which can help us reconsider society’s problems and goals from different perspectives. Then we can redefine journalism. What’s needed is radical thinking. I, for one, have not been radical enough. I will try harder.


If, perchance, you’ve not had enough of the topic, here’s video of that panel on the story at the International Journalism Festival.

Proposals for Reasonable Technology Regulation and an Internet Court

I have seen the outlines of a regulatory and judicial regime for internet companies that begins to make sense to me. In it, platforms set and are held accountable for their standards and assurances while government is held to account for its job — enforcing the law — with the establishment of internet courts.

I have not been a fan of net regulation to date, for reasons I’ll enumerate below. Even Mark Zuckerberg is inviting regulation, though I don’t agree with all his desires (more on that, too, below). This is not to say that I oppose all regulation of the net; when there is evidence of demonstrable harm and consideration of the impact of the regulation itself — when there is good reason — I will favor it. I just have not yet seen a regulatory regime I could support.

Then I was asked to join a Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression organized by former FCC commissioner Susan Ness under the auspices of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Information Law. At the first meeting, held in stately Ditchley Park (I slept in servants’ quarters), I heard constructive and creative ideas for monitored self-regulation and, intriguingly, a proposal for an internet court. What I’m about to describe is not a summary of the deliberations. Though discussion was harmonious and constructive, I don’t want to present this as a conclusion or as consensus from the group, only what most intrigued me. What I liked about what I’m about to outline is that it separates bad behavior (defined and dealt with by companies) from illegal behavior (which must be the province of courts) and enables public deliberation of new norms. Here’s the scenario:

  • A technology company sets forth a covenant with its users and authorities warranting what it will provide. Usually, this document obligates users to community standards to govern unwanted behavior and content. But this covenant should also obligate the company to assurances of what it will provide, above and beyond what the law requires. These covenants can vary by platform and nation. The community of users should be given opportunity for input to this covenant, which a regulator may approve.
  • In the model of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, liability arises for the company when it fails to meet the standards it has warranted. A regulator tracks the company’s performance and responds to complaints with the enforcement cudgel of fines. This monitoring requires the company to provide transparency into certain data so its performance can be monitored. As I see it, that in turn requires the government to give safe harbor to the company for sharing that data. Ideally, this safe harbor also enables companies to share data — with privacy protected — with researchers who can also monitor impact. (Post Cambridge Analytica, it has become even more impossible to pry data from tech companies.)

Now draw a hard, dark line between unwanted behavior and illegal acts. A participant in the meeting made an innovative proposal for the creation of national internet courts. (I wish I could credit this person but under Chatham House Rule, they wished to remain unnamed though gave me permission to write about the idea.) So:

  • Except in the most extreme matters (e.g., tracking, reporting, and eliminating terrorist incitement or child porn), a company’s responsibility to act on illegal content or behavior arises after the company has been notified by users or authorities. Once notified, the company is obligated to take action and can be held liable by the government for not responding appropriately.
  • The company can refer any matters of dispute to an internet court, newly constituted under a nation’s laws with specially trained judges and systems of communication that enable it to operate with speed and scale. If the company is not sure what is illegal, the court should decide. If the object of the company’s actions — take-down or banning — wishes to appeal, the court will rule. The company will have representation in court and affected parties may as well.
  • The participant who proposed this internet court argued, eloquently and persuasively, that the process of negotiating legal norms, which in matters online is now occurring inside private corporations, must occur instead in public, in courts, and with due process.
  • The participant also proposed that the court would be funded by a specific fee or tax on the online companies. I suspect that the platforms would gladly pay if this got them out of the position of having to enforce vague laws with undue speed and with huge fines hanging over their heads.

That is a regulatory and legal regime — again, not a proposal, not a conclusion, only the highlights that impressed me — which strikes me as rational, putting responsibilities in the appropriate bodies; allowing various platforms and communities to be governed differently and appropriately for themselves; and giving companies the chance to operate positively before assuming malign intent. Note that our group’s remit was to look at disinformation, hate speech, and other unacceptable behavior alongside protection of freedom of expression and assembly and not at other issues, such as copyright — though especially after the disastrous Articles 11+13 in Europe’s new copyright legislation, that is a field that is crying for due process.

The discussion that led here was informed by very good papers written about current regulatory efforts and also by the experience of people from government, companies (most of the largest platforms were not represented by current executives), and academics. I was most interested in the experience of one European nation that is rather quietly trying an experiment in regulation with one of the platforms, in essence role-playing between government and a company in an effort to inform lawmakers before they write laws.

In the meeting, I was not alone in beginning every discussion urging that research must be commissioned to inform any legislative or regulatory efforts, gathering hard evidence and informing clear definitions of harm and impact.These days, interventions are being designed under presumptions that, for example, young people are unable to separate fact from falsity and are spreading the latter (this research says the real problem is not the kids but their grandpas); or that the internet has dealt us all into filter bubbles (thesestudies referenced by Oxford’s Rasmus Kleis Nielsen do not support that). To obtain that evidence, I’ll repeat that companies should be given safe harbor to share data — and should be expected to then do so — so we can study the reality of what is happening on the net.

At Ditchley, I also argued — to some disagreement, I’ll confess — that it would be a dangerous mistake to classify the internet as a medium and internet companies as publishers or utilities. Imagine if Facebook were declared to be both and then — as is being discussed, to my horror, on the American right — were subjected to equal-time regulation. Forcing Facebook to give presence and promotion to certain political views would then be tantamount to walking into the Guardian editor-in-chief’s office and requiring her to publish Nigel Farage. Thank God, I’m confident she wouldn’t. And thank our constitutional authors, we in the United States have (at least for now) a First Amendment that should forbid that. Rather than thinking of the net as a medium — and of what appears there as content — I urged the group (as I do to anyone who’ll read me here) to think of it instead as a mechanism for connections where conversation occurs. That public conversation, with new voices long ignored and finally heard, deserves protection. That is why I argue that the net is neither publisher nor utility but something new: the connection machine.

There were other interesting discussions in the meeting — for example, about whether to ban foreign interference in a nation’s elections and political discussion. That idea unraveled under examination as that could also prevent organizing international campaigns for, say, climate reform or democracy. There was also much discussion about the burden regulation puts on small companies — or larger companies in smaller countries — raising the barrier to entry and making big companies, which have the lawyers and technologists needed to deal with regulation, only bigger and more powerful.

Principles for legislation

It is critical that any discussion of legislative efforts begin at the level of principles rather than as a response to momentary panic or political point-scoring (in Europe, pols apparently think they can score votes by levying big fines on large, American companies; in America, certain pols are hoping to score by promising — without much reason, in my opinion — to break successful companies up).

According to many in the working group meeting, the best place to begin is with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely:

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

It is no easy matter to decide on other principles that should inform legislation. “Fake news” laws say that platforms must eradicate misinformation and disinformation. Truth is a terrible standard, for no one — especially not the platforms — wants to be its arbiter and making government that arbiter is a fast track to authoritarianism (see: China). Discerning truth from falsehood is a goal of the public conversation and it needs to flow freely if bumptiously to do that.

Civility seems an appealing standard but it is also troubling. To quote Joan Wallach Scott in the just-published Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom: “The long history of the notion of civility shows that it has everything to do with class, race, and power.” She quotes Michael Meranze arguing that “ultimately the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest there is nothing to be angry about in the world.” Enforcement of civility also has a clear impact on freedom of expression. “Hence the English laws regulating language extended protection only to the person harmed by another’s words, never to the speaker,” explains Debora Shuger in Censorship & Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England. When I spoke with Yascha Mounk on his podcastabout this question, he urged holding onto civility, for he said one can call a nazi a nazi and still be civil. Germany’s NetzDG leans toward enforcement of civility by requiring platforms to take down not only hate speech but also “defamation or insult.” (Google reported 52,000 such complaints and took down 12,000 items as a result.) But again, sometimes, insult is warranted. I say that civility and civilization cannot be legislated.

Harm would be a decent standard if it were well-researched and clearly defined. But it has not been.

Anonymity is a dangerous standard, for requiring verified identity endangers the vulnerable in society, gives a tool of oppression to autocratic regimes, and is a risk to privacy.

Of course, there are many other working groups and many other convenings hashing over just these issues and well they should. The more we have open discussion with input from the public and not just lobbyists, the less likely that we will face more abominations like Articles 11+13. This report by Chris Middleton from the Westminster eForum presents more useful guidelines for making guidelines. For example, Daniel Dyball, UK executive director of the Internet Association,

proposed his own six-point wishlist for regulation: It should be targeted at specific harms using a risk based approach, he said; it should provide flexibility to adapt to changing technologies, services, and societal expectations; it should maintain the intermediary liability protections that enable the internet to deliver benefits to consumers, society, and the economy; it should be technically possible to implement in practice; it should provide clarity and certainty for consumers, citizens, and internet companies; and finally, it should recognise the distinction between public and private communications — an issue made more difficult by Facebook….

Middleton also quotes Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute, who argued for human rights as the guiding principle of any regulation and for a commitment to safe harbor to enable companies to take risks taken in good faith. “Well-balanced immunity or safe harbor are vital if we want responsible corporate behavior,” she said. She argued for minimizing the judgments companies must make in ruling on content. “Nash said she would prefer judgments that concentrate on illegal rather than ‘legal but harmful’ content.” She said that laws should encourage due process over haste. And she said systems should hold both companies and governments to account, adding: “I don’t have the belief that government will always act in the public interest.” Amen. Cue John Perry Barlow.

All of which is to say that regulating the internet is not and should not be easy. The implications and risks to innovation and ultimately democracy are huge. We must hold government to account for careful deliberation on well-researched evidence, for writing legislation with clearly enforceable standards, and for enforcing those laws.

Principles for company covenants

Proposing the covenants internet companies should make with their users, the public at large, and government — and what behavior they demand from and will enforce with users — could be a useful way to hold a discussion about what we expect from platforms.

Do we expect them to eliminate misinformation, incivility, or anonymity? See my discussion above. Then how about a safe space free of hatred? But we all hate nazis and should be free to say so. See Yascha Mounk’s argument. Then how about banning bigots? There’s a good start. But who’s a bigot? It took the platforms some time to decide that Alex Jones was one. They did so only after the public was so outraged by his behavior that companies were given cover to delete him. What happens in such cases, as I argue in this piece for The Atlantic, is that standards become emergent, bottom-up, after-the-fact, and unenforceable until after the invasion.

I urge you to read Facebook’s community standards. They’re actually pretty good and yet they certainly don’t solve the problem. Twitter has rules against abusive behavior but I constantly see complaints they are not adequately enforced.

This, I think, is why Mark Zuckerberg cried uncle and outright asked for regulation and enforcement from government. Government couldn’t figure out how to handle problems online so it outsourced its job to the companies. Now the companies want to send the task back to government. In response to Zuckerberg’s op-ed, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr pushed back again: “Facebook says it’s taking heat for the mistakes it makes in moderating content. So it calls for the government to police your speech for it. Outsourcing censorship to the government is not just a bad idea, it would violate the First Amendment. I’m a no.” Well, except if it’s government that forces Facebook to take action against speech then that is tantamount to government interference in speech and a violation of the First Amendment. The real problem is the quasi-legal nature of this fight: governments in Europe and the U.S. are ordering platforms to get rid of “harmful” speech without defining harm in law and without due process. It’s a game of hot potato and the potato is in midair. [Disclosure: I raised money for my school from Facebook but we are independent of it and I receive no money personally from any platform. Through various holdings and mutual funds, I probably own stock in most major platforms.]

Zuckerberg urges a “more standardized approach” regarding harmful content as well as privacy and definitions of political advertising. I well understand his desire to find consistency. He said: “I also believe a common global framework — rather than regulation that varies significantly by country and state — will ensure that the Internet does not get fractured, entrepreneurs can build products that serve everyone, and everyone gets the same protection.”

But the internet is fractured and nations and cultures are different. A recent paper by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall says the net is already split into four or five pieces: the open net of Silicon Valley, the commercial web of American business, the regulated “bourgeois internet” of Europe, the authoritarian internet of China, and the misinformation internet of Russia and North Korea.

I worry about Zuckerberg’s call for global regulation for I fear that the net will be run according to the lowest common denominator of freedom and the highest watermark of regulation.

None of this is easy and neither companies nor governments — nor us as the public — can shirk our duties to research, discern, debate, and decide on the kind of internet and society we want to build. This is a long, arduous process of trial and error and of negotiation of our new laws and norms. There’s no quick detour around it. That’s why I want to see frameworks that are designed to include a process of discussion and negotiation. That’s why I am warming to the structure I outlined above, which allows for community input into community standards and requires legislative consideration and judicial due process from government.

What I don’t want

I’ve been highly critical of much regulation to date and though I’ve written about that elsewhere, I will include my objections here, for context. In my view, attempts to regulate the net to date too often:

  1. Spring from moral panic over evidence (see Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law);
  2. Are designed for protectionism over innovation (see Articles 11+13 of Europe’s horrendous new copyright law and it’s predecessors, Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht or ancillary copyright and Spain’s link tax);
  3. Imperil freedom of expression and knowledge (see 11+13, the right to be forgotten, and the French and Singaporean fake news laws, which make platforms deciders of truth);
  4. Are conceived under vague and unenforceable standards (see where the UK is headed against “harmful content” its Commons Report on Disinformation and “fake news”);
  5. Transfer government authority and obligations to corporations, which now act in private and without due process as legislature, police, judge, jury, jailer, and censor (see the right to be forgotten and NetzDG);
  6. Result in misallocation of societal resources (Facebook hired, by latest count, 30,000 — up from 20,000 — monitors looking for hate while America has fewer than 30,000 newspaper reporters looking for corruption);
  7. Fall prey to the law of unintended consequences: making companies more responsible makes them more powerful (see GDPR and many of the rest).

And newly proposed regulation gets even worse with recent suggestions to require government permits for live streaming or to mandate that platforms vet everything that’s posted.

If this legislative juggernaut — and the moral panic that fuels it — are not slowed, I fear for the future of the net. That is why I think it is important to discuss regulatory regimes that will first do no harm.

Media Education and Change

Lately I’ve been scolding myself that I have not been radical enough — yes, me, not nearly radical enough — about rethinking journalism in our still-emerging new reality of a connected world. And if journalism requires rebuilding, then so does journalism education and all of media education.

Every fall, when I am lucky enough to talk with our entire incoming class at the Newmark J-school, I tell them that they are the ones who must reinvent journalism and media; they should learn what we teach them and then question it all to find better ways. If media will be rethought and rebuilt from the ashes, what principles might govern how we prepare our students to become authors of that change? For some discussions I’ve been having recently, I’ve been thinking about all this and so, as is my habit, I’d like to think out loud and learn from you. I’ll start by outlining a few principles that are informing my thinking and then briefly discuss how this might affect various sectors of media education:

  1. Listen first. The net is not a medium. It is a means of connection: connecting people with each other, people with information, and information with information. It enables conversation. That conversation is the collective deliberation of a democracy. Our first duty now is to teach students to use the tools the net brings them to listen before they create; to observe communities and markets and their needs and desires; to seek out communities they have not known; to empathize with those communities; to reflect what they learn back to the public so they check themselves; to collaborate with the public; to serve truth, especially when uncomfortable. No sector of media listens well — they think they do, but they don’t.
  2. Champion diversity. Now that most anyone — everyone who’s connected — can speak, new voices that were never represented in media can at last be heard. That is what is scaring the old people in power, leading to the reactionary rise of Trumpism, Brexit, and many of our racist and nationalist ills today. At Newmark, diversity is the soul of our institution and its mission. A colleague of mine, Jenny Choi, recently wrote an eloquent note about the value of our students and their wide variety of lived experiences. “They are the future drivers of trust in a journalism that holds true to its core values as a public service,” she wrote. Over the years, editors — and professors — have been known to tell reporters and students that stories about their own communities aren’t big enough because they don’t appeal to everyone, to the mass. That’s wrong. We need to build curriculum that values their experience. I’ve learned that as an institution, we need to serve diversity in the field at three levels: staffing (recruiting a diverse student body), leadership (at Newmark, we are starting a new program in News Innovation and Leadership, which will require ongoing mentorship and support for people who have not had the opportunity to lead), and ownership (thus entrepreneurial journalism).
  3. Death to the mass. All sectors of media are having great difficulty breaking themselves of their habit of selling to the mass. Our products were one-size-fits-all; our profits depended on scale. But now the net kills the mass as an idea and as a business strategy. Media must know and serve people as individuals and members of communities. Recently I met a newspaper executive who’d just come from the music industry, where he said companies finally learned that smaller acts — which had been seen as failures supported by the blockbusters — are now the core of the business, for those artists have loyal communities that add up to scale. Thinking about our work in terms of communities-as-society rather than as mass society will have radical impact on what we do.
  4. Service over product. So long as we continue to teach media as the creation of a product that can be bought, sold, and controlled, our students will miss the greater opportunity to be of service to a public. It is in service that we will build value.
  5. Service as our ethic. We need to reconsider the ethical principles and standards of all sectors of media around these ideas of connection, conversation, community, collaboration, diversity, impact, service, responsibility, empowerment. We need to ask how we are helping communities improve their lots in life. We need to convene communities in conflict into civil, informed, and productive conversation (that is my new working definition of journalism and a mission all media and internet companies should share). We need to work transparently and set our standards in public, with the public. We need to be answerable and accountable to those communities, measuring our success and our value against their standards and needs over ours.
  6. Be responsible stewards. I came to teach journalism students the business of journalism — at Newmark we call it entrepreneurial journalism — because we need to make them responsible leaders who will set sustainable strategies for the future of media. They need to learn how to create value and earn reward for it; profit is not a sin. Our creative graduates should sit at the same table with business executives in the industry; how do we equip them to do that?
  7. Teach change. In media education, this has tended to mean teaching students to teach themselves how to use new tools as they arrive, which is important. But, of course, it is also vital that we teach students to change our industry, to innovate and invent, to address problems with solutions, to find opportunity in disruption, to be leaders. I don’t mean to teach them PowerPoint cant about change management and design thinking. I want them to challenge us with radical new ideas that turn each sector of media on its head. This is what I mean when I say I have not been radical enough. Their ideas could mean such heresy as throwing out the story as our essential form (for example, one of our entrepreneurial students, Elisabetta Tola, now is looking at bringing the scientific method to journalism). It could mean building an enterprise on collaboration with communities (Wikipedia showed what’s possible but where are the copycats?). It could mean lobbying for and then creating systems of extreme transparency in government and business. I don’t know what all it could mean.
  8. Reach across disciplines. Since I started teaching, I’ve heard academics and administrators from countless institutions salute the flag of interdisciplinary collaboration. To be honest, most us aren’t good at it. I haven’t been. I believe we in media must reach out to other disciplines so we can learn from their expertise as they help us reimagine media: 
     — Anthropology relies on a discipline of observation and evidence we could use in media. (My favorite session in Social Journalism every year is the one to which my colleague, Carrie Brown, invites in an anthropologist to teach journalists how to observe.) 
     — Psychology is a critical field especially today, as emotions and anger prove to have more impact on the public conversation than mere facts. Maybe we don’t need media literacy so much as we need group therapy. 
     — Economics, sociology and the other social sciences also study group behavior. 
     — Marketing has a discipline of metrics and measurement we could learn from. 
     — Education is a critical skill if we want to teach the public things they need to know for their own lives and things they need to know to manage their communities. 
     — The sciences can teach us the scientific method, emphasizing, as media should, evidence over narrative.
     — Computer sciences are critical not just for the disruption they cause and the tools they offer. Data science and machine learning have much to teach us about new sources of information and new ways to find value in it. We can also work together on the ever-greater challenge of knowing our world. My friend the philosopher David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know, has a brilliant and provocative new book coming out called Everyday Chaos in which he examines the paradox of the connected data age, in which knowing more makes the world more unknowable. He writes:

Deep learning’s algorithms work because they capture better than any human can the complexity, fluidity, and even beauty of a universe in which everything affects everything else, all at once.

As we will see, machine learning is just one of many tools and strategies that have been increasingly bringing us face to face with the incomprehensible intricacy of our everyday world. But this benefit comes at a price: we need to give up our insistence on always understanding our world and how things happen in it.

That conception is antithetical to the warranty media make that they can explain the world in a story. How do we build media for a world in which complexity becomes only more apparent?


In journalism, at the Newmark J-school, we’ve tried to implement various of these principles and are working on others. Social Journalism, the new degree we started, is built on the idea of journalism in service to the conversation among communities. The need to teach responsible stewardship is what led to the Entrepreneurial Journalism program. Our new program in News Innovation and Leadership will — in my hidden agenda — embed radicals, rebuilders, and diverse leaders at the top of media companies. These new programs are meant to infuse their revolutionary goodness into the entire school and curriculum. Since the start, we’ve taught all students all media and our J+ continuing education program helps them refresh those skills (we call this our 100,000-mile guarantee). We’re just beginning to make good connections across our university into other disciplines; personally, I want to do much more of that.

Advertising will require reinvention as well. Here I outlined my worries about the commodification of media with volume-based, attention-based, mass-market advertising falling into the abyss in an abundance-based economy. Advertising is a necessity — for marketers and for media — but it has to be rebuilt around new imperatives to establish direct relationships of trust with customers who can be heard and must be respected. Programmatic advertising, microtargeting, retargeting, influencers, recirculation, and native are all crude, beginning attempts to exploit change. Tomorrow’s advertising graduates need to come up with new ways to listen to customers’ needs and desires: advertising as feedback loop, not as megaphone to the masses. They need to do more to put the customer in control of the experience of media, including data gathering, personalization, and commerce. They will need to establish new standards of responsibility about the use of data and privacy and the behaviors their industry values and incents (see: clickbait). How can we build the support of quality media into the ethos of advertising?

As for public relations: A decade ago, when I wrote What Would Google Do?, the advertising sage Rishad Tobaccowala speculated that PR must become the voice of the market to the company rather than of the company to the market. That brings the advertising and PR of the future closer together (or in closer conflict). By logical extension, Rishad’s dictum also means that the best PR company will fire clients that don’t listen to and respect their customers by involving them earlier in the chain of a product’s design and even a company’s strategy. An ethical PR company will refuse to countenance lies on clients’ behalf. This PR won’t just survey consumers but will teach companies how to build honest relationships with customers as people.

And broadcasting: I think I began to discern the fate of one-way media at Vidcon, where I saw what that music executive (above) told me come to life in countless communities built on real and empathetic relationships between creators and their fans. As I’ve written before, Vidcon taught me that we in nonfiction media can serve the public by creating media as social tokens, which people can use to enrich their own conversations with facts, ideas, help, and diverse voices. At the same time, fictional media must — especially today — take greater responsibility to challenge the public to a better expression of itself. Years ago, Will & Grace (and many shows before and after) made Americans realize they all knew and loved someone gay; it played its part in challenging the the closeting of LGBTQ Americans. Today, we need fictional media that makes strangers less strange.

As I said above, we need the study of communications (I refuse to call it mass communications) more than ever — and what a magnificent time to be a researcher examining and trying to understand the change overtaking every aspect of media. At Newmark’s Tow-Knight Center, I hope to do more to bring researchers together with technology companies so we can bring evidence to what are now mostly polemical debates about the state of social media and society. I just came from the UK and a working group meeting on net regulation (more on that another day) where I saw an urgent need for government to give safe harbor to technology companies to share data for such study.

At that meeting of tech, government, and media people, I fought — as I always do — against classifying the internet as a medium and internet companies as media companies when they are instead something entirely new. But the discussion made me think that in one sense, I’ll go along with including the internet inside media: I’d like internet studies to be part of the discipline of communications studies, with many new centers to embed the study of the net into everything we teach. What a frontier!

Or another way to look at this is that media studies could be subsumed into whatever we will call internet studies, first because it is ever more ridiculous to cut up media into silos and then stitch them back together as “multi-media” (can we retire the term already?) and second because all media are now internet media. Media are becoming a subset of the net and everything it represents: connections, conversation, data, intelligence. Does it make sense to separate what we used to call media — printed and recorded objects — from this new, connected reality?


There are so many exciting things going on in media education today. We — that is, my colleagues at Newmark — get to teach and develop social video, AR, VR, drone reporting, podcasting, data journalism, comedy as journalism, and more . I’ve also been trying to develop ideas like restructuring media curriculum around skills transcripts and providing genius bars for students to better personalize education, especially in tools and skills. I wish we were farther ahead in understanding how to use the net itself in distance and collaborative learning. All that is exciting and challenging, but I see that as mainly tactical.

Where I want to challenge myself is on the strategic level: How do we empower the generation we teach now and next to challenge all our assumptions that got us here, to save media by reinventing it, to shock and delight?

My greatest joy at Newmark is learning from the students. In Social Journalism, for example, students taught me I was wrong to send them off to find a singular community to serve; every one of them showed me how their journalism is needed where communities — plural — interact: journalism at the points of friction. They taught me the differences between externally focused journalism (informing the world about a community, as we’ve always done) and internally focused journalism (meeting a community’s information needs, as we can do now). I watched them learn that when they first observe, listen to, and build relationships with communities, they leave their notebooks and cameras — the tools of the mediator — behind, for the goal is not gathering quotes from instead gaining understanding and trust. When I still lecture them it’s about the past as context, challenging them to decide what they should preserve and what they should break so they can build what’s new.

Europe Against the Net

I’ve spent a worrisome weekend reading three documents from Europe about regulating the net:

In all this, I see danger for the net and its freedoms posed by corporate protectionism and a rising moral panic about technology. One at a time:

Articles 11 & 13: Protectionism gone mad

Article 11 is the so-called link tax, the bastard son of the German Leistungsschutzrechtor ancillary copyright that publishers tried to use to force Google to pay for snippets. They failed. They’re trying again. Reda, a member of the European Parliament, details the dangers:

Reproducing more than “single words or very short extracts” of news stories will require a licence. That will likely cover many of the snippets commonly shown alongside links today in order to give you an idea of what they lead to….

No exceptionsare made even for services run by individuals, small companies or non-profits, which probably includes any monetised blogs or websites.

European journalists protest that this will serve media corporations, not journalists. Absolutely.

But the danger to free speech, to the public conversation, and to facts and evidence are greater. Journalism and the academe have long depended on the ability to quote — at length — source material to then challenge or expand upon or explain it. This legislation begins to make versions of that act illegal. You’d have to pay a license to a news property to quote it. Nevermind that 99.9 percent of journalism quotes others. The results: Links become blind alleys sending you to god-knows-what dark holes exploited by spammers and conspiracy theories. News sites lose audience and impact (witness how a link tax forced Google News out of Spain). Even bloggers like me could be restricted from quoting others as I did above, killing the web’s magnificent ability to foster conversation with substance.

Why do this? Because publishers think they can use their clout to get legislators to bully the platforms into paying them for their “content,” refusing to come to grips with the fact that the real value now is in the audience the platforms send to the publishers. It is corporate protectionism born of political capital. It is corrupt and corrupting of the net. It is a crime.

Article 13 is roughly Europe’s version of the SOPA/PIPA fight in the U.S.: protectionism on behalf of entertainment media companies. It requires sites where users might post material —isn’t that every interactive site on the net ?— to “preemptively buy licenses for anything that users may possibly upload,” in Reda’s explanation. They will also have to deploy upload filters — which are expensive to operate and notoriously full of false positives — to detect anything that is not licensed. The net: Sites will not allow anyone to post any media that could possibly come from anywhere.

So we won’t be able to quote or adapt. Death to the meme. Yes, there are exceptions for criticism, but as Lawrence Lessig famously said “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.” This legislation attempts to kill what the net finally brought to society: diverse and open conversation.

Cairncross Review: Protecting journalism as it was

The UK dispatched Dame Frances Cairncross, a former journalist and economist, to review the imperiled state of news and she returned with a long and well-intentioned but out-of-date document. A number of observations:

  • She fails — along with many others — to define quality journalism. “Ultimately, ‘high quality journalism’ is a subjective concept that depends neither solely on the audience nor the news provider. It must be truthful and comprehensive and should ideally — but not necessarily — be edited. You know it when you see it….” (Just like porn, but porn’s easier.) Thus she cannot define the very thing her report strives to defend. A related frustration: She doesn’t very much criticize the state of journalism or the reasons why trust in it is foundering, only noting its fall.
  • I worry greatly about her conclusion that “intervention may be needed to determine what, and how, news is presented online.” So you can’t define quality but you’re going to regulate how platforms present it? Oh, the platforms are trying to understand quality in news. (Disclosure: I’m working on just such a project, funded by but independent of Facebook.) But the solutions are not obvious. Cairncross wants the platforms to have an obligation “to nudge people towards reading news of high quality” and even to impose quotas for quality news on the platforms. Doesn’t that make the platforms the editors? Is that what editors really want? Elsewhere in the report, she argues that “this task is too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.” But BBC aside, that is where the task of news lies today: in commercial entities. Bottom line: I worry about *any* government intervention in speech and especially in journalism.
  • She rightly focuses less on national publications and more on the loss of what she calls “public interest news,” which really means local reporting on government. Agreed. She also glances by the paradox that public-interest news “is often of limited interest to the public.” Well, then, I wish she had looked at the problem and opportunity from the perspective of what the net makes possible. Why not start with new standards to require radical transparency of government, making every piece of legislation, every report, every budget public? There have been pioneering projects in the UK to do just that. That would make the task of any journalist more efficient and it would enable collaborative effort by the community: citizens, librarians, teachers, classes…. She wants a government fund to pay for innovations in this arena. Fine, then be truly innovative. She further calls for the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News. Do we need another such organization? Journalism has so many.
  • She explores a VAT tax break for subscriptions to online publications. Sounds OK, but I worry that this would motivate more publications to put up paywalls, which will further redline quality journalism for those who can afford it.
  • She often talked about “the unbalanced relationship between publishers and online platforms.” This assumes that there is some natural balance, some stasis that can be reestablished, as if history should be our only guide. No, life changed with the internet.
  • She recommends that the platforms be required to set out codes of conduct that would be overseen by a regulator “with powers to insist on compliance.” She wants the platforms to commit “not to index more than a certain amount of a publisher’s content without an explicit agreement.” First, robots.txt and such already put that in publishers’ control. Second, Cairncross acknowledges that links from platforms are beneficial. She worries about — but does not define — too much linking. I see a slippery slope to Article 11 (above) and, really, so does Cairncross: “There are grounds for worrying that the implementation of Article 11 in the EU may backfire and restrict access to news.” In her code of conduct, platforms should not impose their ad platforms on publishers — but if publishers want revenue from the platforms they pretty much have to. She wants platforms to give early warnings of changes in algorithms but that will be spammed. She wants transparency of advertising terms (what other industries negotiate in public?).
  • Cairncross complains that “most newspapers have lacked the skills and resources to make good use of data on their readers” and she wants the platforms to share user data with publishers. I agree heartily. This is why I worry that another European regulatory regime — GDPR — makes that nigh unto impossible.
  • She wants a study of the competitive landscape around advertising. Yes, fine. Note, thought, that advertising is becoming less of a force in publishers’ business plans by the day.
  • Good news: She rejects direct state support for journalism because “the effect may be to undermine trust in the press still further, at a time when it needs rebuilding.” She won’t endorse throttling the BBC’s digital efforts just because commercial publishers resent the competition. She sees danger in giving the publishing industry an antitrust exception to negotiate with the platforms (as is also being proposed in the U.S.) because that likely could lead to higher prices. And she thinks government should help publishers adapt by “encouraging the development and distribution of new technologies and business models.” OK, but what publishers and which technologies and models? If we knew which ones would work, we’d already be using them.
  • Finally, I note a subtle paternalism in the report. “The stories people want to read may not always be the ones they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account.” Or the news people need in their lives might not be the news that news organizations are reporting. Also: Poor people — who would be cut off by paywalls — “are not just more likely to have lower levels of literacy than the better-off; their digital skills also tend to be lower.” Class distinctions never end.

It’s not a bad report. It is cautious. But it’s also not visionary, not daring to imagine a new journalism for a new society. That is what is really needed.

The Commons report: Finding fault

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is famously the body Mark Zuckerberg refused to testify before. And, boy, are they pissed. Most of this report is an indictment of Facebook on many sins, most notably Cambridge Analytica. For the purposes of this post, about possible regulation, I won’t indulge in further prosecuting or defending the case against Facebook (see my broader critique of the company’s culture here). What interests me in this case is the set of committee recommendations that could have an impact on the net, including our net outside of the UK.

The committee frets — properly — over malicious impact of Brexit. And where did much of the disinformation that led to that disaster come from? From politicians: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, et al. This committee, headed by a conservative, makes no mention of colleagues. As with the Cairncross report, why not start at home and ask what government needs to do to improve the state of its contribution to the information ecosystem? A few more notes:

  • Just as Cairncross has trouble defining quality journalism, the Commons committee has trouble defining the harm it sees everywhere on the internet. It puts off that critical and specific task to an upcoming Online Harms white paper from the government. (Will there also be an Online Benefits white paper?) The committee calls for holding social media companies — “which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’,” the report cryptically says — liable for “content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users.” The committee then goes much farther, threatening not just tech companies but technologists. My emphasis: “If tech companies (including technological engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations under such a Code [of Ethics], and not acted against the distribution of harmful and illegal content, the independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered….” Them’s fightin’ words, demonizing not just the technology and the technology company but the technologist.
  • Again and again in reading the committee’s report, I wrote in the margin “China” or “Iran,” wondering how the precedents and tools wished for here could be used by authoritarian regimes to control speech on the net. For example: “There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that a compulsory Code of Ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content.” How — except in the details — does that differ from China deciding what is harmful to the minds of the masses? Do we really believe that a piece of “harmful content” can change the behavior of a citizen for the worse without many other underlying causes? Who knows best for those citizens? The state? Editors? Technologists? Or citizens themselves? The committee notes — with apparent approval — a new French law that “allows judges to order the immediate removal of online articles that they decide constitute disinformation.” All this sounds authoritarian to me and antithetical to the respect and freedom the net gives people.
  • The committee expands the definition of personal data — which, under GDPR, is already ludicrously broad, to include, for example, your IP address. It wants to include “inferred data.” I hate to think what that could do to the discipline of machine learning and artificial intelligence — to the patterns and inferences that will compose patterns discerned and knowledge produced by machines.
  • The committee wants to impose a 2% “digital services tax on UK revenues of big technology companies.” On what basis, besides vendetta against big (American) companies?
  • The Information Commissioner told the committee that “Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust.” How often does government get into the nitty-gritty of companies’ business models? And let’s be clear: The problem with Facebook’s business model — click-based, volume-based, attention-based advertising — is precisely what drove media into the abyss of mistrust. So should the government tell media to change its business model? They wouldn’t dare.
  • The report worries about the “pernicious nature of micro-targeted political adverts” and quotes the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising recommending that “all factual claims used in political ads be pre-cleared; an existing or new body should have the power to regulate political advertising content.” So government in power would clear the content of ads of challengers? What could possibly go wrong? And micro-targeting of one sort or another is also what enables small communities with specific interests to find each other and organize. Give up your presumptions of the mass.
  • The report argues “there needs to be absolute transparency of online political campaigning.” I agree. Facebook, under pressure, created a searchable database of political ads. I think Facebook should do more and make targeting data public. And I think every — every — other sector of media should match Facebook. Having said that, I still think we need to be careful about setting precedents that might not work so well in countries like, say, Hungry or Turkey, where complete transparency in political advertising and activism could lead to danger for opponents of authoritarian regimes.
  • The committee, like Cairncross, expresses affection for eliminating VAT taxes on digital subscriptions. “This would eliminate the false incentive for news companies against developing more paid-for digital services.” Who said what is the true or false business model? I repeat my concern that government meddling in subscription models could have a deleterious impact on news for the public at large, especially the poor. It would also put more news behind paywalls, with less audience, resulting in less impact from it. (A hidden agenda, perhaps?)
  • “The Government should put pressure on social media companies to publicize any instances of disinformation,” the committee urges. OK. But define “disinformation.” You’ll find it just as challenging as defining “quality news” and “harm.”
  • The committee, like Cairncross, salutes the flag of media literacy. I remain dubious.
  • And the committee, like Cairncross, sometimes reveals its condescension. “Some believe that friction should be reintroduced into the online experience, by both tech companies and by individual users themselves, in order to recognize the need to pause and think before generating or consuming content.” They go so far as to propose that this friction could include “the ability to share a post or a comment, only if the sharer writes about the post; the option to share a post only when it has been read in its entirety.” Oh, for God’s sake: How about politicians pausing and thinking before they speak, creating the hell that is Brexit or Trump?

In the end, I fear all this is hubris: to think that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be before we dare to define and limit the opportunities it presents. I fear the paternalistic unto authoritarian worldview that those with power know better than those without. I fear the unintended — and intended — consequences of all this regulation and protectionism. I trust the public to figure it out eventually. We figured out printing and steam power and the telegraph and radio and television. We will figure out the internet if given half a chance.

And I didn’t even begin to examine what they’re up to in Australia…

Scorched Earth

I just gave a talk in Germany where a prominent editor charged me with being a doomsayer. No, I said, I’m an optimist … in the long run. In the meantime, we in media will see doom and death until we are brutally honest with ourselves about what is not working and cannot ever work again. Then we can begin to build anew and grow again. Then we will have cause for optimism.

Late last year in New York, I spoke with a talented journalist laid off from a digital news enterprise. She warned that there would be more blood on the streets and she was right: In January, more than 2,000 people have lost their jobs at news companies old and now new: Gannett, McClatchy, BuzzFeed, Vice, Verizon. She warned that we are still fooling ourselves about broken models and until we come to terms with that, more blood will flow.

So let us be blunt about what is doomed:

  • Advertising in its current forms is burning out — perhaps even for the lucky ones who still have it.
  • Paywalls will not work for more than a few — and their builders often do not account for the real motives of people who pay and who don’t.
  • There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us — to pay for what is needed.
  • Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly.

There are no messiahs. There are no devils to blame, either.

  • Google and Facebook did not rob the news industry; they only took up the opportunity we were blind to. Our fate is not their fault. Taking them to the woodshed will produce little but schadenfreude.
  • VCs, private equity, and the public markets are not to blame; like lions killing antelope and vultures eating the rest, they are doing only what nature commanded.

Are we to blame for our own destruction? I confess I used to think that was somewhat true — for the optimist in me believed there had to be something we could do to find opportunity in all this disruption, to rebuild an old industry in a new image, and if we didn’t we were at fault for the result. But perhaps we simply could not see the fallacies in our operating assumptions:

  • Information is a commodity.
  • Content is a commodity.
  • In an age of abundance, commodities are losing businesses.
  • Nobody owes us a damned thing: not technologists, not financiers, not philanthropists, not advertisers, not the public, and certainly not government. Instead, we are in debt to many of them and can’t pay it back.

Maybe there is nothing we could have done to save businesses built on now-outmoded models. Maybe nobody is to blame. Reality sucks until it doesn’t.

I believe we can and must build new models for journalism based on real value, understanding people’s needs and motives so we can serve them. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I can’t help it: I’m an optimist. Before we can build the new, we must recognize what is past. Only then can we rise from the ashes. That process — when it begins — will not be easy or short. As I am fond of telling anyone who will listen, I believe we are at the start of a long, slow evolution, akin to the start of the Gutenberg Age, as we enter a new and still-unknown age. It’s only 1475 in Gutenberg years. There might be a few peasants’ wars, a Thirty Years War, and a Reformation between us and a Renaissance ahead. No guarantees that there’ll be a Renaissance, either. But there’ll definitely be no resurrection of what was.

Recently, Ben Thompson and Jeremy Littau shared cogent analyses of how we got in this hole. I want to examine why merely adjusting those same strategies will not get us out of it. I want to shift our gaze from the ashes below to a north star above — to optimism about the future — but I don’t think we can do that until we are honest about our present. So let’s examine each of the bullets (to our heads) above.

ADVERTISING IS BURNING OUT.

Mass marketing — that is, volume-based advertising — killed quality and injured trust in media because, as abundance grew and prices fell and desperation rose, every movement and metric was reduced to a click and inevitably a cat and a Kardashian. Programmatic advertising commodifies everything it touches: content, media, consumers, data, and even the products it sells. Personalization via retargeting — those ads that follow you everywhere — is insulting and stupid. (Hey, Amazon: why do you keep advertising things to me you know I bought?)

Advertising ultimately exists to fool people into thinking they want something they hadn’t thought they wanted. Thus every new form of advertising inevitably burns out when customers catch on, when the jig is up. That’s why advertisers always want something new. Clicks at volume worked for Business Insider, Upworthy, and many like them until it no longer did. Native advertising worked for Quartz — which, I think, did the best and least fraudulent job implementing it — until it no longer paid all the bills. So-called influencer marketing sort-of worked until customers learned that even their friends can’t be trusted. Axios is proud that it is breaking even on corporate responsibility advertising —which will work until people remember that some evil empires are all still evil. Facing advertising’s limits, each of these companies is resorting to a paywall. We’ll discuss how well that will work in a minute.

Many years ago — at the start of all this — I said that by definition, advertising is failure. Every maker and every marketer wants to be loved, its products bought because its customers are already sold or because its customers sell its products with honest recommendations. When that doesn’t work, you advertise. The net puts seller and buyer into direct contact and advertisers will explore every possible way to avoid advertising.

Amazon finds another path by exploiting others’ cost structures — manufacturers, marketers, distributors — to arrive at pure sales. Then Amazon can eliminate all those middlemen by making products that require neither brand nor advertising, recommending them to customers based on their behavior and intent (and robots will eventually take care of distribution).

If advertising and brands are diminished, even Google and Facebook may suffer and fall because arbitraging data to intuit intent — like every other advertising business model so far — might be short-lived. I think the definition of “short” might be decades, and so I’m not ready to short their stock (disclosure: I own Google’s). I also expect no end of glee at their pain. My point: The platforms are not invincible.

I think that BuzzFeed was onto something before it pivoted to pivoting. It didn’t sell audience per se but instead sold expertise: We know how to make our shit viral and we can make your shit viral. If we in journalism have any hope of holding onto any scraps of advertising that still exist, I believe we need to think similarly and understand the expertise we could bring to others. I like to think that could be understanding how to serve communities. But first we have to learn how to do that.

The bottom line: Because it enables anyone to speak as an individual, the net kills the idea of the faceless mass and with it mass media and mass marketing and possibly mass manufacturing. It’s over, people. The mass was a myth and the net exposed that.

PAYWALLS WILL NOT WORK FOR MORE THAN A FEW

Not long ago, every time I encountered a paywall for an article I wanted to read, I recorded the annual cost. I stopped after two weeks when the total hit $3,650. NFW. Oh, I know: I’ve been Twitter-scolded along with the rest of the cheap-bastard masses for not comparing the intrinsic, moral worth of a news think piece to a latte. What entitlement it takes for journalists to lecture people on how they spend their own hard-earned money. Scolding is no business strategy.

Yes, at least for some years, some media properties will make money by charging readers for access to content — until the idea of “content” disappears (more on that in a minute) along with the concept of the “mass” and the industry called “advertising.” But let’s be honest about a few things:

  1. Consumer willingness to pay for content is a scarcity and we’ve already likely hit its limits. A recent Reuters Institute study said more than half of surveyed executives vowed paywalls would be their main focus for 2019. The line on the other side of the cash register is going to get mighty crowded.
  2. Much of the content behind many of the paywalls out there is not worth the price charged.
  3. Most of the information in that content is duplicative of what exists elsewhere for less or free.

Paywalls are an attempt to create a false scarcity in an age of abundance. They will work for the few that sell speed (see Bloomberg v. Reuters and also Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys — though time is a diminishing asset) or unique value (which inevitably means a limited audience of people who can make money on that value) or loyalty and quality (yes, the strategy is working wellfor The New York Times because it is the fucking New York Times — and you’re not).

The mistake that many paywallers make is that they don’t understand what might motivate people to pay. I pay for The Washington Post because I think it is the best newspaper in America and because Jeff Bezos gave me a great price. Personally, I pay for the New York Times and The Guardian out of patronage but only one of them is clever enough to realize that (more on that in a minute). You might be paying for social capital or access to journalists or to other members of a community or out of social responsibility. The product, the offering, and the marketing all need to take into account your motive.

The economics of subscriptions and paywalls are never discussed in full. I learned from my first day in the magazine business that you have to spend money in marketing to earn money in subscriptions. I’ve been privy to the subscriber acquisition cost of some news organizations and it is staggering. Yes, some of the fees news orgs are charging are high but the subscriber acquisition cost can be two or three times the cost to the consumer or more. And churn rates are higher than most will admit.

I do think we need to explore more sources of revenue from consumers. At Newmark’s Tow-Knight Center, we have brought together media companies trying commerce. Some companies are selling their own ancillary products — everything from books to wine to cooktops to gravity blankets. High-end media companies are surprised at how much people will spend through them on travel. The Telegraph is making financial services and sports betting a priority. Texas Tribune and others find success in events. I’m in favor of trying all these paths to consumer revenue but each one brings the need for expertise, resources, and risk. As for micropayments: dream on.

Those abandoning advertising — or rather, those abandoned by advertising — often argue for the moral superiority of paywalls. But every revenue source brings moral hazards to beware of, as Jay Rosen explores regarding dependence on readers. In the end, the arguments in favor of paywalls are often fatally tautological: They must be working because everyone is building them. Good luck with that.

There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us

The Reuters Institute survey found that a third of executives expected more largesse from foundations this year. Well, last year, Harvard and Northeastern published a study of foundation support of journalism, tolling up $1.8 billion in grants over six years. Not counting support for education (but thanking those who give it), I calculate that comes to less than $200 million a year. For the sake of comparison, The New York Times’ costs add up to almost $1.5 billion. The grants are a drop in the empty bucket. Foundations can be wonderful but they cannot support all the efforts that think they are worthy. They also tend to have ADD, wanting to support the next new thing. They are not our salvation.

How about wealthy individuals? Depends on the wealthy individual. G’bless Jeff Bezos for bringing innovation to The Washington Post and giving Marty Baron the freedom to excel. It’s nice that Marc Benioff bought Time, though I’m not sure why he did and whether that was the best investment in journalism. Pierre Omidyar is funding ideologically diverse efforts from The Intercept to The Bulwark; good for him. Good for all that. But there are also many bad billionaires. Sugar daddies are not our salvation.

Then what about charity — patronage — from the public? I have been a proponent of membership over paywalls, of creating services that serve the affinities of people and communities. Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project is helping De Correspondent bring its lessons to the U.S. and key among them is that people give money not for access to content but to support the work of a journalist. I advocated a membership strategy for The Guardian but when its readers said they didn’t want a paywall because they wanted to support The Guardian’s journalism for the good of society, it became evident that the relationship was actually charity or contribution. And it works. The Guardian will finally break even thanks to the generosity of its readers. Is this for everyone? No, because everyone is not The Guardian. I give to The Guardian. I consider my payments to The New York Times patronage. I give to Talking Points Memo simply because I want to support its work. But just as with subscriptions, there is a finite pool of generosity. Charity won’t save us.

Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly

I could go on and on about the lessons learned from regulatory protectionism in Europe but I won’t because I already did.

Should government support journalism in the U.S.? I have a two-word response to that.

Enough said.


So now onto the devils who get the blame for ruining news. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom I greatly admire and often agree with, identifies what she says are the biggest threats to journalism.

The platforms often — more often every day — deserve criticism for their behavior[Full disclosure: I raised money from Facebook for my J-school but we are independent of them and I receive no money personally from any platform.]

But their success is not the cause of our failure. As is often the case, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson said it better than I could:

While I know a lot of journalists disagree, I don’t think Facebook or Google did anything untoward: what happened to publishers was that the Internet made their business models — both print advertising and digital advertising — fundamentally unviable. That Facebook and Google picked up the resultant revenue was effect, not cause. To that end, to the extent there is concern about how dominant these companies are, even the most extreme remedies (like breakups) would not change the fact that publishers face infinite competition and have uncompetitive advertising offerings.

Optimist that I am, I still think there is reason to work with the platforms because the public we serve is often there and because I believe together we should share what I now define as journalism’s mission: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. That would be in the enlightened self-interest of the platforms. But they have no obligation to pay media companies and we have learned the hard way that depending on platforms for stability appears impossible as they experiment and proudly fail with new models.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a brilliant and harsh critic of the platforms, has argued to me that it is foolish to expect a Google to behave as anything other than a company, in the interest of shareholder return. That realism applies as well to the venture capitalists who sometimes invest in media and, lord knows, the hedge fund and private equity organizations that capitalize on news media’s debt and weakness. We can decry them all we want. I’m just saying that it’s foolish to think that we can change their ways via badgering, begging, or regulation. I strongly believe that innovation in news will require investment but we should enter into those arrangements with eyes wide open, recognizing that unless we can promise a return on investment, we should not knock on their doors. That return will come only when we concentrate on the real value of what we do.


Information is a commodity. Content is a commodity.

Our value does lie in the information we provide. But that is also our problem because information is a commodity. I tried to explain this in Geeks Bearing Gifts:

Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.

In news, we copy and rewrite each other because our mass-media business models make us fill pages with content as inexpensively as possible (rewriting is cheaper than reporting — see The Hill) so we can place an ad and get a pageview and get a penny. What we complain Google and Facebook do — taking advantage of the commodification of information — is the basis of much of our own business model. We have hoisted ourselves on our own petard.

I believe information will remain the core of the public demand for and the value of journalism. But we cannot build our business models on that alone.

I also believe that we are not in the content business — and that’s a good thing because it, too, is a commodity, and in an age of abundance, commodities are bad businesses. I think we too often try to save the wrong business.


So what business are we in? Will I allow a bit of optimism at the end of all this doomsaying? Can I point up to a north star?

I return to my definition of journalism, with a debt to James Carey, whom I quoted at length in my recent defense of tweeting. Journalism exists to be of service to the public conversation. What does that look like? How will that serve society? How will it be sustained? I’m not sure.

I have long argued that local journalism needs to rise from communities. I thought that could take the form of hyperlocal blogs but I was wrong because I was still thinking of local journalism in terms of content. I confessed my error here, where I also acknowledged the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of building a new house while the old one is burning down around existing newsrooms. Is it possible to turn a content-based, information-based business into one that is built on and begins with the public conversation and is based on service? I don’t know.

I think I’ve seen a bare sprout of what this one model might look like rising from the ashes in the form of Spaceship Media’s plans for local journalism. Spaceship does just what I say journalism should do: convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. So far, it has done that in collaboration with newsrooms, notably Advance’s in Alabama, learning how to rebuild trust between journalist and public. I recently spoke with Spaceship’s cofounder, Eve Pearlman, about how journalists convening, listening to, serving, and valuing local conversation could be a service and a business. Above I said that we could follow BuzzFeed’s lead by selling a skill and I wish that skill were serving communities. I hope Spaceship could teach us that. So I will watch its work with interest and enthusiasm. But I want to be careful and not present that as the salvation of journalism, only as one small experiment that could begin to teach us to rethink what journalism can and should be, not based on our old presumptions of mass media but on our essential value.

In the meantime, I think it is vital — as that unemployed journo told me on the streets of New York — that we be brutally honest with ourselves about our failures so we can learn from them. I hope that conversation continues.