I just submitted a letter opposing the so-called California Journalism Preservation Act that is now going through the Senate. Here’s what I said (I’ll skip the opening paragraph with my journalistic bona fides):
Like other well-intentioned media regulation, the CJPA will result in a raft of unintended and damaging consequences. I fear it will support the bottom lines of the rapacious hedge funds and billionaires who are milking California’s once-great newspapers for cash flow without concern for the information needs of California’s communities. I have seen that first-hand, for I was once a member of the digital advisory board for Alden Capital’s Digital First, owner of the Bay Area News Group. For them, any income from any source is fungible and I doubt any money from CJPA will go to actually strengthening journalism.
The best hope for local journalism is not the old newspaper industry and its lobbyists who seek protectionism. It will come instead from startups, some not-for-profit, some tiny, that serve local communities. These are the kinds of journalists we teach in the Entrepreneurial Journalism program I started at my school. These entrepreneurial journalists will not benefit from CJPA and their ventures could be locked out by this nonmarket intervention favoring incumbent competitors. From a policy perspective, I would like to see how California could encourage new competition, not stifle it. I concur with the April letter from LION publishers.
More important, the CJPA and other legislation like it violates the First Amendment and breaks the internet. Links are speech. Editorial choice is speech. No publisher, no platform, no one should be forced to link or not link to content — especially the kinds of extremist content that is ruining American democracy and that could benefit from the CJPA by giving them an opening to force platforms to carry their noxious speech.
Note well that the objects of this legislation, Facebook and Google, would be well within their rights to stop promoting news if forced to pay for the privilege of linking to it. When Spain passed its link tax, Google News pulled out of the country and both publishers and citizens suffered for years as a result. Meta has just announced that it will pull news off its platforms in Canada as a result of its Bill C-18. News is frankly of little value to the platforms. Facebook has said that less than four percent of its content relates to news, Google not much more. Neither makes money from news.
The CJPA could accomplish precisely the opposite of its goal by assuring that less news gets to Californians than today. The just-released Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford makes clear that more than ever, citizens start their news journeys not with news brands but end up there via social media and search:
Across markets, only around a fifth of respondents (22%) now say they prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app — that’s down 10 percentage points since 2018…. Younger groups everywhere are showing a weaker connection with news brands’ own websites and apps than previous cohorts — preferring to access news via side-door routes such as social media, search, or mobile aggregators.
Tremendous value accrues to publishers from platforms’ links. By lobbying against the internet platforms that benefit them, news publishers are cutting off their noses to spite their faces, and this legislation hands them the knife.
In a prescient 1998 paper from Santa Monica’s RAND Corporation, “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead,” James Dewar argued persuasively for “a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy. Societies who regulated the printing press suffered and continue to suffer today in comparison with those who didn’t.” In my new book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I agree with his conclusion.
I fear that California, its media industry, its journalists, its communities, and its citizens will suffer with the passage of the CJPA.
Ben Smith picked just the right title for his saga of BuzzFeed, Gawker, and The Huffington Post: Traffic (though in the end, he credits the able sensationalist Michael Wolff with the choice). For what Ben chronicles is both the apotheosis and the end of the age of mass media and its obsessive quest for audience attention, for scale, for circulation, ratings, page views, unique users, eyeballs and engagement.
Most everything I write these days — my upcoming books The Gutenberg Parenthesis in June and a next book, an elegy to the magazine in November, and another that I’m working on about the internet — is in the end about the death of the mass, a passing I celebrate. I write in The Gutenberg Parenthesis:
The mass is the child and creation of media, a descendant of Gutenberg, the ultimate extension of treating the public as object — as audience rather than participant. It was the mechanization and industrialization of print with the steam-powered press and Linotype — exploding the circulation of daily newspapers from an average of 4,000 in the late nineteenth century to hundreds of thousands and millions in the next — that brought scale to media. With broadcast, the mass became all-encompassing. Mass is the defining business model of pre-internet capitalism: making as many identical widgets to sell to as many identical people as possible. Content becomes a commodity to attract the attention of the audience, who themselves are sold as a commodity. In the mass, everything and everyone is commodified.
Ben and the anti-heroes of his tale — BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton, HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, investor Kenny Lerer, and a complete dramatis personae of the early players in pure-play digital media — were really no different from the Hearsts, Pulitzers, Newhouses, Luces, Greeleys, Bennetts, Sarnoffs, Paleys, and, yes, Murdochs, the moguls of mass media’s mechanized, industrialized, and corporate age who built their empires on traffic. The only difference, really, was that the digital moguls had new ways to hunt their prey: social, SEO, clickbait, data, listicles, and snark.
Ben tells the story so very well; he is an admirable writer and reporter. His narrative whizzes by like a local train on the express tracks. And it rings true. I had a seat myself on this ride. I was a friend of Nick Denton’s and a member of the board of his company before Gawker, Moreover; president of the online division of Advance (Condé Nast + Newhouse Newspapers); a board member for another pure-play, Plastic (a mashup of Suck et al); a proto-blogger; a writer for HuffPost; and a media critic who occasionally got invited to Nick’s parties and argued alongside Elizabeth Spiers at his kitchen table that he needed to open up to comments (maybe it’s all our fault). So I quite enjoyed Traffic. Because memories.
Traffic is worthwhile as a historical document of an as-it-turns-out-brief chapter in media history and as Ben’s own memoir of his rise from Politico blogger to BuzzFeed News editor to New York Times media critic to co-founder of Semafor. I find it interesting that Ben does not try to separate out the work of his newsroom from the click-factory next door. Passing reference is made to the prestige he and Jonah wanted news to bring to the brand, but Ben does not shy away from association with the viral side of the house.
I saw a much greater separation between the two divisions of BuzzFeed — not just reputationally but also in business models. It took me years to understand the foundation of BuzzFeed’s business. My fellow media blatherers would often scold me: “You don’t understand, Jeff,” one said, “BuzzFeed is the first data-driven newsroom.” So what? Every newsroom and every news organization since the 1850s measured itself by its traffic, whether they called it circulation or reach or MAUs.
No, what separated BuzzFeed’s business from the rest was that it did not sell space or time or even audience. It sold a skill: We know how to make our stuff viral, they said to advertisers. We can make your stuff viral. As a business, it (like Vice) was an ad agency with a giant proof-of-concept attached.
There were two problems. The first was that BuzzFeed depended for four-fifths of its distribution on other platforms: BuzzFeed’s own audience took its content to the larger audience where they were, mostly on Facebook, also YouTube and Twitter. That worked fine until it didn’t — until other, less talented copykittens ruined it for them. The same thing happened years earlier to About.com, where The New York Times Company brought me in to consult after its purchase. About.com had answers to questions people asked in Google search, so Google sent them to About.com, where Google sold the ads. It was a beautiful thing, until crappy content farms like Demand Media came and ruined it for them. In a first major ranking overhaul, Google had to downgrade everything that looked like a content farm, including About. Oh, well. (After learning the skills of SEO and waiting too long, The Times Company finally sold About.com; its remnants labor on in Barry Diller’s content farm, DotDash, where the last survivors of Time Inc. and Meredith toil, mostly post-print.)
The same phenomenon struck BuzzFeed, as social networks became overwhelmed with viral crap because, to use Silicon Valley argot, there was no barrier to entry to making clickbait. In Traffic, Ben reviews the history of Eli Pariser’s well-intentioned but ultimately corrupting startup Upworthy, which ruined the internet and all of media with its invention, the you-won’t-believe-what-happened-next headline. The experience of being bombarded with manipulative ploys for attention was bad for users and the social networks had to downgrade it. Also, as Ben reports, they discovered that many people were more apt to share screeds filled with hate and lies than cute kittens. Enter Breitbart.
BuzzFeed’s second problem was that BuzzFeed News had no sustainable business model other than the unsustainable business model of the rest of news. News isn’t, despite the best efforts of headline writers, terribly clickable. In the early days, BuzzFeed didn’t sell banner ads on its own content and even if it had, advertisers don’t much want to be around news because it is not “brand safe.” Therein lies a terrible commentary on marketing and media, but I’ll leave that for another day.
Ben’s book comes out just as BuzzFeed killed News. In the announcement, Jonah confessed to “overinvesting” in it, which is an admirably candid admission that news didn’t have a business model. Sooner or later, the company’s real bosses — owners of its equity — would demand its death. Ben writes: “I’ve come to regret encouraging Jonah to see our news division as a worthy enterprise that shouldn’t be evaluated solely as a business.” Ain’t that the problem with every newsroom? The truth is that BuzzFeed News was a philanthropic gift to the information ecosystem from Jonah and Ben.
Just as Jonah and company believed that Facebook et al had turned on them, they turned on Facebook and Google and Twitter, joining old, incumbent media in arguing that Silicon Valley somehow owed the news industry. For what? For sending them traffic all these years? Ben tells of meeting with the gray eminence of the true evil empire, News Corp., to discuss strategies to squeeze “protection money” (Ben’s words) from technology companies. That, too, is no business model.
Thus the death of BuzzFeed news says much about the fate of journalism today. In Traffic, Ben tells the tale of the greatest single traffic driver in BuzzFeed’s history: The Dress. You know, this one:
At every journalism conference where I took the stage after that, I would ask the journalists in attendance how many of their news organizations wrote a story about The Dress. Every single hand would go up. And what does that say about the state of journalism today? As we whine and wail about losing reporters and editors at the hands of greedy capitalists, we nonetheless waste tremendous journalistic resource rewriting each other for traffic: everyone had to have their own story to get their own Googlejuice and likes and links and ad impressions and pennies from them. No one added anything of value to BuzzFeed’s own story. The story, certainly BuzzFeed would acknowledge, had no particular social value; it did nothing to inform public discourse. It was fun. It got people talking. It took their attention. It generated traffic.
The virus Ben writes about is one that BuzzFeed — and the every news organization on the internet and the internet as a whole — caught from old, coughing mass media: the insatiable hunger for traffic for its own sake. In the book, Nick Denton plays the role of inscrutable (oh, I can attest to that) philosopher. According to Ben, Nick believed that traffic was the key expression of value: “Traffic, to Nick … was something pure. It was an art, not a science. Traffic meant that what you were doing was working.” Yet Nick also knew where traffic could lead. Ben quotes him telling a journalist in 2014: “It’s not jonah himself I hate, but this stage of internet media for which he is so perfectly optimized. I see an image of his cynical smirk — made you click! — every time a stupid buzzfeed listicle pops on Facebook.”
Nick also believed that transparency was the only ethic that really mattered, for the sake of democracy. Add these two premises, traffic and transparency, together and the sex tape that was the McGuffin that brought down Gawker and Nick at the hands of Peter Thiel was perhaps an inevitability. Ben also credits (or blames?) Nick for his own decision to release the Trump dossier to the public on BuzzFeed. (I still think Ben has a credible argument for doing so: It was being talked about in government and in media and we, the public, had the right to judge for ourselves. Or rather, it’s not our right to decide; it’s a responsibility, which will fall on all of us more and more as our old institutions of trust and authority — editing and publishing — falter in the face of the abundance of talk the net enables.)
The problem in the end is that traffic is a commodity; commodities have no unique value; and commodities in abundance will always decrease in price, toward zero. “Even as the traffic to BuzzFeed, Gawker Media, and other adept digital publishers grew,” Ben writes, “their operators began to feel that they were running on an accelerating treadmill, needing ever more traffic to keep the same dollars flowing in.” Precisely
Traffic is not where the value of the internet lies. No, as I write in The Gutenberg Parenthesis (/plug), the real value of the internet is that it begins to reverse the impact print and mass media have had on public discourse. The internet devalues the notions of content, audience, and traffic in favor of speech. Only it is going to take a long time for society to relearn the conversational skills it has lost and — as with Gutenberg and the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Thirty Years’ War that followed — things will be messy in between.
BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, etc. were not new media at all. They were the last gasp of old media, trying to keep the old ways alive with new tricks. What comes next — what is actually new — has yet to be invented. That is what I care about. That is why I teach.
Senator Amy Klobuchar’s oxymoronically titled Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — it might better be named the Journalism Lobby Blackmail Bill — was just dealt a kick to the kidneys by a confused Ted Cruz amendment. It is delayed but not dead. It is still wrong-headed and dangerous and here I’ll examine how.
As ever, Mike Masnick does stellar work picking apart the bill’s idiocy and impact in detail. In summary, the JCPA would require big internet companies — Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, though perhaps not the incredibly shrinking Facebook — to negotiate with midsize newspaper publishers. Freed from antitrust, the publishers may band together and demand payment for linking to their news. Yes, linking to their news. The value platforms bring in terms of promotion, distribution, and audience is not a factor in these negotiations. If agreement cannot be reached, talks go to a co-called arbitration process and the platforms can be forced to carry and pay for publishers’ content.
Stop right there. That government would force anyone to carry anyone else’s speech is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Compelled speech is not free speech. Keep in mind that the extremist right in Congress is dying to concoct ways to force platforms to carry their noxious speech; Klobuchar et al are paving a way for them. That government would force anyone to pay to link to others is a fundamental violation of the principles of the internet. Links are free. Links are speech. That government would insert itself in any way into journalism and speech is simply unconstitutional.
Let us now consider the wider context of this legislation and where it goes wrong.
Newspaper publishers do not deserve payment
God did not grant newspaper publishers the revenue they had. They chose not adapt to the internet; I spent decades watching them at close range. Competitors offered better, more efficient and effective vehicles for advertisers, who fled overpriced, inefficient, monopolistic newspapers at first opportunity. Readers, whose trust in news has been falling since the ’70s, also fled. Welcome to capitalism, boys.
Today, most newspaper chains in America are controlled by hedge funds. I briefly served on digital advisory boards for one American and one Canadian company controlled by the hedgies and witnessed what they did: selling every possible asset, cutting costs to the marrow, and stopping all investment in innovation. The JCPA offers no real means of accountability to assure that platform money would go to journalism serving communities’ needs, not straight into the pockets of the hedgies. (The JCPA shares that problem with Rupert Murdoch’s similar blackmail bill in Australia.)
Journalists should not be lobbyists
I am appalled that legacy journalistic trade organizations — led by the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America, recently merged with the former Magazine Publishers Association)— have turned into lobbyists, cashing in news’ political capital and engaging in conflict of interest in the name of protectionism. Newspapers exist to stand independent of power in government, not beggars at its trough. Journalists themselves should rise up to protest what their publishers have ganged together to do: to sell their souls.
Newspapers have a long history of antitrust
This shameful behavior of publishers is not new. When radio emerged as print’s first competitor, papers did everything possible to prevent it from competing in news. Here are a few paragraphs recounting that episode from my upcoming book with Bloomsbury, The Gutenberg Parenthesis.*
In Media at War, Gwynth Jackaway chronicled American newspapers’ opposition to broadcast in a tale of defensiveness and protectionism that would be reprised with the arrivals of television and the internet. “Having been presented with a new technology, contemporary actors voice their concerns about how the new medium will change their lives, and in so doing they reveal their vulnerabilities,” she wrote…. Newspaper publishers tried to disadvantage their new competitors, strong-arming radio executives to agree to abandon news gathering, to buy and use only reports supplied by three wire services, to limit news bulletins to five minutes, and to sell no sponsorship of news. Their agreement also prohibited commentators from even discussing news less than twelve hours old (a so-called “hot news” doctrine the Associated Press would try to establish against internet sites as late as 2009). The pact fell away as wire services and station-owning newspapers bristled under its restrictions.
Print publishers tried other tactics. They threatened to stop printing radio schedules in their newspapers, but readers protested and radio won again. They lobbied to have radio regulated by the federal government and then unironically maintained that radio companies under government control would be unreliable covering government. The newspaper press tried to have radio reporters barred from the Congressional press galleries. They called radio a “monopolistic monster” and lobbied for a European model of government control of the airwaves. They blamed radio for siphoning off advertising revenue, though the Great Depression was more likely to blame for newspapers folding or consolidating in the era. They also lobbied for the government to limit or ban advertising on radio.
All their protectionism was cloaked in self-important, sacred rhetoric, with publishers accusing radio of manifold sins. Radio, they said, spread loose statements and false rumors: fake news. Radio “filched” and “lifted” news from newspapers. Radio seduced the public with the human voice to exploit emotions, to “catch and hold attention,” and to excite listeners. Will Irwin, a muckraking print journalist, wrote in his book Propaganda and the News: “The radio, through the magic inherent in the human voice, has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creating emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts.” Radio was “a species of show business, with overtones of peddling and soap-boxing.” Editor and Publisher maintained that “the sense of hearing does not satisfy the same intellectual craving as does the sense of reading” and the editor of American Press claimed that “most folks are eye-minded. They get only impressions through their ears; they get facts through their eyes.”
“Using the doomsday approach that so often accompanies the invocation of ‘sacred’ values,” wrote Jackaway, “they warned that the values of democracy and the survival of our political system would be endangered” if radio took on the roles of informing the electorate and serving a marketplace of ideas….
“Never,” said Jackaway, “is there the admission that public opinion might be manipulated by the printed word as well as the spoken word, or any recognition that by attempting to control radio news the press was actually infringing upon the broadcasters’ freedom of expression.”
Sound familiar? This is the same industry that today wants to be excused from antitrust law and Klobuchar et al are doing its bidding.
Government must not license and limit journalism
The JCPA sets a definition for news organizations eligible for its benefits and thus defines and de facto licenses journalists. Beware: What government giveth government may take away.
To avoid accusation that the bill would transfer money from big tech to big media, the JCPA sets a limit of 1,500 employees. It also sets a floor of $100,000 revenue. Thus, many are excluded. In our entrepreneurial program at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, we train independent journalists to serve communities and markets; they are too small. Our Center for Community Media and its Black, Latino, and Asian Media Initiatives work with a wide array of news organizations serving communities; many of them are too small. LION, the wonderful association serving local news organizations, says 44 percent of its members are too small.
These newcomers and publishers of color are the real innovators in journalism, not the old, tired, failing, incumbent newspapers. They are left out of the JCPA. The JCPA is aimed at companies whose papers are, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, just right — that is, the ones controlled by the hedge funds who pay the lobbyists.
The help platforms should give
I am all for technology companies helping the cause of news. In full disclosure, my school receives funds from various of the technology companies to fight disinformation, to independently study the internet, to train journalists in the new skills of product, to train community news organizations in business innovation. For years, I’ve attended Newsgeist, an event started by the Knight Foundation and Google, and there I began what is now the tradition of running a session asking, “What should Google do for news?”
Forcing payments from technology companies as this bill and others elsewhere would do is no business model. It’s blackmail. What we need instead is help to develop new models. Google does that with subscriptions and YouTube players offering monetization. Facebook used to do that in various programs but has thrown up its hands and given up on news (I frankly do not blame them). Apple and Microsoft send audience to news. Jeff Bezos saved The Post. We need more of this kind of help. JCPA does nothing to make news sustainable.
Should news even be copyrighted?
The legislation in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, as well as Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, and the EU’s resulting Article 15 are all attempts to extend copyright.
In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I also write about the origins of copyright. Note well that at the start, in the Statute of Anne of 1710 and in the first American copyright laws, news was explicitly not included. Not until 1909 in the United States did copyright law include newspapers, but even still, according to Will Slauter in Who Owns the News?, some still debated whether news articles, as opposed to literary features, were protected, for they were the product of business more than authorship.
The first, best government subsidy newspapers received was a franking privilege from the Post Office, starting in 1792, which allowed publishers to exchange editions with each other for the express purpose of copying each others’ news. This, too, from my book: “Newspapers employed ‘scissors editors’ to compile columns of reports from other papers. Editors would not complain about being copied because they copied in turn — but they would protest and loudly about not being credited…. It is ironic that newspapers — which since their founding in Strasbourg in 1605 have been compiled from news created by others — today complain that Google, Facebook, et al steal their property and value by quoting headlines and snippets from articles in the process of sending them readers via links. The publishers receive free marketing.”
I came to learn that copyright was created not to protect creators. Instead, copyright turned creation into a tradable asset, benefitting the publishers and producers who acquired rights from writers.
Just as a thought experiment, instead of extending copyright as so many legacy publishers in league with legislators wish to do, let us imagine what journalism might be today without copyright.
Without copyright, news organizations might not concentrate, as they do now, on the notion of journalism as a product to be restricted and sold to the privileged who can afford it. They are returning news to what it was before the printing press, when it was contained in expensive, exclusive newsletters called avvisi. Meanwhile, disinformation, lies, and propaganda will always fly free.
Without copyright, journalists might see news as a service that individuals and communities could choose to support — as they do public radio, The Guardian, and countless newsletters — because it is useful to them.
Without copyright, journalists might then concentrate on creating service of original value rather than employing digital scissors editors to rewrite each others’ stories into trending clickbait to make their own content to fill their own pages to attract their own SEO and social links to feed ever-decreasing programmatic CPMs.
Without copyright, they might turn all that wasted journalistic labor and talent loose on watching, reporting on, and holding accountable the politicians they are instead now lobbying.
Without copyright and the Gutenberg-era notions of content, property, and product, journalists might also feel freer to collaborate with the public, rather than speaking and selling to the public. Journalists might come to center journalism in the community rather in themselves, as we teach in our Engagement Journalism program at Newmark.
Without copyright, journalism might no longer be seen as a widget to be used as a wedge but instead a contributor to the quality of public discourse.
Do I want to get rid of copyright for news? Actually, yes, I do. I know that is not going to happen. But I can at least beg my legislators — I am looking at you, Cory Booker — not to extend and mangle copyright in the service of hedge funds and failed newspaper monopolists. Instead, let us find ways and means to support collaboration and innovation to improve news.
* The Gutenberg Parenthesis is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in June. You can be assured I would be sending you to a preorder link now if it existed, but it won’t until November. Watch this space.
Beside journalism’s addiction to prediction lies another comorbidity: its presumption to set expectations.
Of course, we are well familiar with this co-occuring condition in coverage of politics, where journalists think they bring value to public discourse — which they do not — when they predict who will win an election. In the process, they set expectations about what a candidate must do to meet the pundit’s definition of “winning.”
But we see these ailments strike other areas of coverage. Take the pandemic and the economy. There is much pearl-clutching right now about inflation. Journalists have set the expectation that prices should not rise in spite of the facts that: (1) we are in the midst of an earth-shattering pandemic, (2) this affects the availability of labor, which in turn affects both (3) wages and (4) the supply chain, which in turn results in (5) higher prices for now. Media says it is a political failurethat prices are rising. This is what we call a media narrative.*
Yet the economy is otherwise miraculously healthy. Unemployment is at record lows. The stock market is at highs. Savings are up. In spite of the pandemic and thanks in great measure to the incredible gift that is the internet, industry continues with few issues while local schools and businesses are on the whole open. One might think that media’s narrative would be about how fucking lucky we are in this nation to be so well-equipped to meet this challenge. But no, that’s not media’s Weltanschauung. Media wear dung-colored glasses.
Imagine a different set of expectations. Over Christmas, our daughter gave us the wonderful gift of having all our families’ 8 mm film digitized and we went through many old photos and files, including those that accompanied my 95-year-old father when we rescued him from the petri dish of viruses and malign idiocy that is Florida and finally moved him to be up with us. In one of the boxes, we found my late mother’s World War II ration booklet.
And that made me think: If we are fighting a “war” against the virus — as another of media’s narratives would wish us to believe — then why did media not set expectations of war-like measures against it, including: (1) official rationing of scarce resources, (2) price-controls to tamp down inflation caused by the scarcity of certain commodities, (3) wage controls to hold back further inflation in a time of scarce labor, (4) easing of immigration restrictions to increase the labor pool, (5) government subsidies for employment and sick leave, (6) mobilization of industry to produce the scarce resources needed, (7) mobilization of federal and state forces to augment labor and enforce rules to protect us all in mandates to (8) get vaccinated and (9) wear masks and (10) in shutdowns to hamper the virus’ spread.
There are a few answers to that hypothetical. The first is that we did not need to resort to all those drastic measures because the economy is healthy, technology has enabled us to mostly continue work (indeed, becoming more productive), and science has given us the blessing of vaccinations that arrived with incredible speed and efficacy.
The second answer is that if media had set such drastic expectations then I believe the presidential election — focused on how little Trump did to protect us and how much he did to harm us — would not have been so “close” (another media narrative based on its own expectation). Then Biden would have had the political cover to more readily take the bold actions from the list above that we do need, such as mask and vaccination mandates and mobilization of industry to make vaccines, masks, and other vital products.
The third answer is that if expectations were so dire then the current administration would be judged against them and would look pretty damned good. Oh, but media hate that narrative. It would make them look biased. We don’t find solutions. We find failure. But that, of course, is the essence of media’s bias.
Instead, media set the expectation that Normal is a street just past the next corner and failing to drive us there in time for tomorrow’s news is failure.
One of my many heresies is that news- and media-literacy are bullshit. They are mediacentric skeins intended to protect media from their own failures and blame the public for them: You, the people we serve, are just too ignorant to understand what we tell you and let’s explain to you how we do what we do so as to avoid a discussion of why we should be doing something else.
This morning, I had a long discussion in DM with two people I respect immensely about local news. It made me think about how too often the discussion in journalism these days refuses to question its presumptions (its narratives about itself):
That hiring more reporters in newsrooms is the goal. (But who is to say that news as it was is news as it should be?)
That local news is the highest virtue. (But how much do people associate themselves with geography versus affinity, interest, need, circumstance, and community now that the net allows them to connect in more ways?)
That people should be expected to pay a high price for news. (When over the century of mass media, news was always cheap.)
That news as it is is worth paying for. (So much is not.)
In the latest Reuters Institute survey of news leaders, I was heartened to see that 47 percent of respondents “worry that subscription models may be pushing journalism towards super-serving richer and more educated audiences and leaving others behind.” Amen.
Yet at the same time, 79 percent said getting audience revenue — behind paywalls — is a top priority. Almost a third expect to get “significant revenue from tech platforms for content licensing or innovation” — read, blackmail, obtained by journalism organizations cashing in their political capital through lobbying the politicians they are meant to cover so as to pressure new competitors to pay them baksheesh. That is pure protectionism. But that’s my narrative. Another 15 percent expect money from philanthropists and foundations. That is to say, they are confessing to a market failure — their failure to serve the market (not the market’s failure to serve them).
The survey reports that “publishers say the biggest barriers to innovation are the lack of money, due to wider economic challenges, and difficulty in attracting and retaining technical staff.” I’ve heard that for years — dare I call it another narrative? — and I disagree now more than ever. Innovation will not come from technology. It will come from realizing new ways to listen to and serve the public through the tools we already have. It will come from abandoning the journalistic prerogative of setting expectations for the public.
The future of journalism I wish for will come from divining means for the public to set their own expectations and judge journalism’s value based on how much we help meet them.†
* Please note that I use “narrative” throughout ironically and mockingly. See Jay Rosen:
† See also Jay on how to cover campaigns through the citizens’ agenda.
Here’s my interview with ABC News Australia and then my discussion with Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review about the fallout from Murdoch’s media law and pressure on the platforms in Australia.The discussion with Mathew occurs on Galley, CJR’s platform for dialog. I’m posting it here because Mathew got me to sum up my views in one place.
Mathew Ingram: Over the past year, Australia has become Ground Zero in the battle over payment for content, since that country is working on a mandatory code that would force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for using even a small portion of their articles. Both Google and Facebook have threatened to pull some or all of their services from the country if the code goes through as planned, but at the same time, Google has been cutting side deals with larger publishers — not just in Australia, but in France, Germany and a number of other countries — to pay them for featuring their content in its Google News Showcase.
We’re talking this week with journalists and other experts about how we got here and where this whole phenomenon is likely to end. Our next guest is Jeff Jarvis, who is the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where he helped create the News Integrity Initiative (which is partially funded by Facebook). Prior to joining CUNY, Jeff was the president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications.
Jeff, thanks very much for doing this. Since we began this discussion series, there have been a couple of big developments, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on either or both of them: 1) News Corp. announced it has signed a deal with Google to be paid for its content, and 2) Facebook just announced that it is blocking Australian publishers from posting or sharing news, and blocking users in that country from seeing or sharing any news.
Jeff Jarvis: This is a disappointing day for the internet and for news in many ways.
First, Google: What Google’s payment to News Corp. demonstrates is that media blackmail works. Even if this is not a payment to pay directly for links, this is still a terrible precedent for the net and its architecture and ethic. No one, not Google, not you or I, should be pressured into paying for linking to content. That, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee told Australian authorities, breaks the web. I would have hoped that Google would have stood up for principle — that is for the open net. It’s a company; even I — author of a book called What Would Google Do? — should not expect too much of them. On the one hand, they are not paying for links per se. But they still paid the devil Murdoch. They caved.
As I wrote in Australia’s Crikey, I am also sorely disappointed in my old friends at The Guardian for cynically falling in league with the devil Murdoch. The Guardian was to be Australia’s guardian angel fighting him.
In the end, regulation that tries to take power away from platforms inevitably gives them more. In Europe, under the Right to be Forgotten, Google decides what we may remember. In Germany, under NetzDG, Facebook decides what speech is illegal, outside a courtroom. Now in Australia, Google decides which news organizations should get money. Small sites and startups will suffer for this is a power game; more money goes to the more powerful. I do not think Google cares much about news. There will not be much traffic to its News Showcase. The CPM cost of this — if we knew the amount — would doubtless be extraordinary. This is not a payment for news. It is baksheesh paid to Murdoch, demanded by his bagmen, the politicians in his pocket.
What also disturbs me is that news organizations, which lately turned from utopian in their coverage of technology to dystopian, never reveal their own conflict of interest in their coverage of the net and its current proprietors. The moral panic in media coverage serves media’s ends as this episode sorely demonstrates.
Let us be quite realistic about the use of these funds. It will not go to journalists. It will not improve news. It will go to the rapacious owners and hedge funds that control news companies.
Now Facebook: There are two interpretations. The positive one is that Facebook stood on principle, decided not to cave in to Murdoch’s blackmail (or not again as Zuckerberg already presented a check to News Corp’s Robert Thomson in New York a year ago), and defended the sanctity of the link on the net. The cynical interpretation is that news is a damned pain in the ass for Facebook and this moment allows them to return to a Facebook devoted to puppies, parties, and getting laid. We shall see. I worry, though, about what will happen when your Australian uncle Joe shares disinformation and you are not allowed to combat that by sharing news. I do hope researchers study the impact.
In any case, I am disappointed in the platforms for not adequately defending the principles and freedoms of the net. I am disappointed in news organizations that played along with Murdoch — just as we barely begin to come out of the nightmare he caused in the United States and just as he brings his Fox News-like poison to Australia with Sky News there and to the UK with a new news channel. This is when we in journalism should be shunning and shaming Murdoch and his cronies. Instead, news organizations danced with the devil. I hope the tune was worth the price of their souls.
A bad day for news. A bad day for the net.
Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It does seem a little odd to me that Facebook has made so much of its commitment to quality news, and its desire to improve the information environment on its platform — Mark Zuckerberg gave a whole speech about his commitment to free speech principles — and yet an entire country has just been blocked from sharing or publishing news. Does that surprise you at all?
Jeff Jarvis: Facebook warned it would do this, so I was not surprised. They had already agreed to pay many companies for full articles for the News Tab (including News Corp.). I guess with this they said there’s no more blood to be squeezed from the stone. Even when they started News Tab, Zuckerberg said they were aware it would not get much traffic; it would be used mainly by news whales (as they call us) like you and me; I interpret that as him saying it would be unprofitable. So this may be Zuckerberg facing down the bully and saying: Enough already.
Or, again, it may be an experiment for the rest of the world. Let’s play this out a bit. I am reminded of the ridiculous front pages of Canadian newspapers last week: blank with the message, “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.” (What a statement of entitlement!) Well imagine a world in which Facebook declares the Australian move a success, making for a more pleasant user experience, and they decide to ban links to news throughout the world. [To be clear, they have not threatened that.] Will we miss them when they’re gone? I think we will.
I want to remind readers that Facebook was not started for news. Our readers took news there because we in our field did not provide the mechanisms for them to share it and discuss it with friends outside of awful comments sections. Twitter was not started for news; our readers, as witnesses to news, chose to share it there. Google was not started for news; our industry could not get its act together (see: New Century Network) to provide an overview of the news ecosystem. We could have started Next Door to allow our local readers to meet with neighbors years ago, but Silicon Valley beat us to it. Our readers deserted us because the net provided mechanisms we did not. And we did not because our colleagues in news have been too busy trying to find new ways to pay for old ways instead.
If I sound the grump today, good.
Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It seems that the Australian government’s argument — and the argument made by governments in France and Germany, among other countries — is that while publishers have an easy way to not allow Google to index or use their content (the robots.txt file, etc.) they have no choice but to fork over their news because Google’s dominant market position makes it suicide not to do so. But at the same time, its dominance in advertising means the traffic it sends them is worth less and less. A Catch-22 if you will. Any truth to that argument?
Jeff Jarvis: They’re not “forking over their news.” That’s like saying if you take my picture you steal my soul. Publishers are benefitting tremendously from Google and Facebook sending them people — audience, users, potential members or subscribers, consumers, call them what you will. In any rational market, publishers would be paying platforms the way we used to have to pay newsstands. Only Google decided from the first not to sell links in search proper and thus they never created a market value for links. For platforms to do publishers this favor of sending them potential customers, they need to give users a preview with headlines or snippets. We all know that! Indeed, I did research years ago that found the larger the sample, the better the performance of the link; our content is our best ad.
Advertising is indeed going down. We made that bed, too. We in mass media created the attention-based advertising market that the platforms now also use, except they have more data so their ads perform better. I spent years trying to convince news publishers to create means to generate more first-party data with the mechanisms to store, analyze, and use it and I got nowhere because publishers insisted on relying on their old, mass-media ways: plain, old CPM.
And now that publishers are retreating behind paywalls, your argument on their behalf loses some oomph. Google started Subscribe with Google to help them with subscription campaigns, including giving publishers data about best prospects. Sampling is critical — it is the only way — to get subscribers. But now publishers are cutting off their noses to spite their conversion.
Mathew Ingram: Thanks Jeff. You and I both know how difficult things are for media organizations worldwide, including in Australia. Isn’t it better to have a flawed law that compels huge corporations to fund journalism in however roundabout a way, rather than have no one funding them at all?
Jeff Jarvis: Call me a cynic, but this won’t fund journalism. In many cases it will fund hedge fund owners. Have you seen any assurance from the media companies that the money they receive from Google will fund incremental work in reporting and investigation? There is no transparency on the amounts they receive. Will there be any transparency on the use of proceeds?
As you know, my friend, I get hives at the notion of government interference — even if well-intentioned — in speech and particularly in journalism; it’s very American of me. In the Australian case, we have politicians negotiating on behalf of publishers who should be watchdogs with their focus trained on these very officials. We also have big institutions — platforms and government — deciding which news outlets should get money and which should not (see: France).
And I return to the question of entitlement. If countries want to get more tax revenue from companies, should they target a particular industry: the net? If they decide to do that, who is to say that news should be the beneficiary? Why not instead benefit the communities news has harmed, lo many generations? Why not instead fund education or health care or internet access for the poor? Why fund hedgies?
Finally, I fear this money will only delay the inevitable at news companies: that is, death. We have seen that comfort only makes news companies lazy in their ways. Yes, we need to sustain journalism. But entitlement, protectionism, and blackmail are not sustainable models for that future.
Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. We are just about out of time, so one last question. It’s really easy! I definitely agree with you that news companies have blown a lot of opportunities over the years when it comes to the internet, and publishers have lined their own pockets instead. And I might even agree that the Australian code is a back-door way of funding journalism, when an outright tax would be a fairer approach. But if none of these things were to happen, where would that leave the industry? What happens when tens of thousands of news outlets cease to exist or are so poor they can barely function? How do we solve that problem as a society?
Jeff Jarvis: For years, at Newsgeists and Perugia and other such chummy venues, I have told folks from Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google that rather than their money, I wish they would give us the attention, perspective, experience, and challenge of their best and brightest. I wish we would start not with what news was (God didn’t design the newspaper) but with what society needs: better information, yes, but also ways to connect communities, to make strangers less strange, to debate constructively, to listen to each other, to join in a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. They consistently demurred and said, “Oh, no, we don’t want to be in the position of telling news companies what to do.” Instead, they gave us Instant Articles and AMP; they worked hard to find homes for what we already did rather than pushing us to rethink and reinvent journalism in a new reality to address society’s problems. They succumbed to the blackmail of our bullies and paid the biggest among us. That is no way to invent our future together.
The big lesson of the last four years and especially the last year for me in my nation is that journalism has failed us. The election of Trump — that that could happen — is evidence against us. The fact that #LivingWhileBlack and #BlackLivesMatter as well as #MeToo were revelatory and not long since reported in mass media is an indictment of us. That the inequity of health in this country in the face of pandemic had not been known and dealt with is our guilty plea. That to get traffic we allow extremists and nuts to set the agenda rather than the needs and lives of everyday Americans is an unforgivable sin. So pardon me but I do not worship at the altar of the pressroom. I want to see us reinvent journalism around old needs and new opportunities. I want to see us collaborate with other fields and disciplines: anthropology to explain communitIes, neuroscience and psychology to explain cognition, ethics and philosopHy to guide us, history and humanities to inform us. I have a long-term vision for journalism. I just fear I am too old to see how this will turn out.
Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. And thanks again for taking the time to talk about this with us — much appreciated. Interesting times we live in!