Emily Bell: Are news organisations ‘consciously uncoupling’ from Facebook?

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School has been conducting in-depth research into the relationship between technology platforms and journalism over the past two years. Emily Bell revealed the findings on the GEN Summit stage today.

You can find the report here, and the updated timeline here.

Emily Bell at the GEN Summit

The relationship between news organisations and platforms has shifted. According to Bell, the reason for this change comes as a result of the investment by investigative journalists and independent academic researchers: Craig Silverman’s work on fake news, Jonathan Albright’s research into algorithms, and most recently, the Cambridge Analytica story, which ‘has completely changed everything’.

All this takes us to April 2018, which saw Mark Zuckerberg in Capitol Hill and later being questioned in the European parliament.

‘Without European regulatory pressure, I don’t think any of this would have happened’, said Bell.

What’s in the research?

Over a thousand American and Canadian newsrooms were surveyed, 94% of which were local newsrooms.

  • 41% of the newsrooms surveyed said they made major changes to news production in response to the growth of social media platforms, while 42% admitted to minor changes.
  • Rather surprisingly, given all the bad press platforms have been getting lately, 50% of respondents said that platforms have strengthened their relationship with audiences.
  • 56% of respondents said platforms should take a great deal or quite a bit of responsibility for financially supporting journalism.
  • 86% of respondents said that platforms have decreased trust in journalism.
  • Out of Google, Facebook and Twitter, the platform that was deemed the most sincere in wanting to help journalism was Google and then Twitter. ‘Google’s cultivation of journalism seems to be paying off’, said Bell, even though it has a massive misinformation problem with YouTube. Facebook, however, was ‘the key villain’, said Bell.

Rhetoric vs reality

‘Newsrooms feel distrustful of social media’, said Bell. ‘But if you look at data of how they’re using platforms we’ll see a different picture’.

  • Many publishers are still actively creating content for platforms.
  • The way publishers are posting to platforms is changing, but the amount they’re posting is stable.

Bell said that there was an ‘unconscious uncoupling’ taking place between publishers and News Feed. Not in the Gwyneth Paltrow sense, but in the way that the relationship seems to be ‘maturing’.

According to the research, publishers are becoming increasingly platform savvy as they are not over-leveraged on a single platform.

‘There are a lot of different ways that we can work together with platforms and we’re making sure that we’re able to look at the total value exchange between the partners’, said a publisher in the survey.

What about local newsrooms with fewer resources?

  • Local newsrooms have a structural disadvantage in the platform press as they use fewer platforms than bigger organisations.
‘We still don’t have the staff in place to do the kind of journalism that people are looking for on these platforms now…’, responded a local publisher in the survey.
  • The Facebook algorithm change didn’t help either.

How has a publisher’s posting behaviour changed on platforms?

  • The research shows that it is now all about driving traffic back to the publishers’ site through networked posts.
  • Native paywalled posts, which means posting links that are paywalled, didn’t happen before. There’s a clear pivot towards getting subscription links out to social platforms.

How are platforms responding to this conscious uncoupling?

‘News publishers won’t be building their houses on other people’s lands like they were a few years ago’, said Bell.

‘Platforms have gone from indirect to direct support’, said Bell. They are aggressively moving into the centre, by pumping money into the journalistic market. Google has put $300 million into the US market and are hiring moderators to police their material, Apple is launching a subscription service, Snap is holding media accelerators, and Facebook is committing to a civil rights audit. In short, they’re all moving towards editorial.

Platforms, over the next two years, platforms will be more concerned with regulatory challenges than competitive challenges. According to Bell, GDPR has been of enormous concern for platforms.

‘Zuckerberg is now less worried about Snapchat than the European commission’, said Bell

But, the questions remain…

  • What effect does the platform’s increased involvement have on editorial independence?

‘These platforms are bigger than news’, said Bell. ‘They’re involved in all parts of civic life’.

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