Mark Zuckerberg’s welcome embrace of journalism

He’s stepping up to his role as the world’s biggest publisher, and that should be good for democracy

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Driving through Alabama on Presidents’ Day, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg swung by the newsroom of the Selma Times-Journal. In a post to his 86 million followers Monday night, he thanked journalists for their efforts to “surface truth” and “keep their communities informed.”

Zuckerberg’s post comes on the heels of his nearly 6,000-word manifesto that offered an ambitious vision for Facebook’s global role. It’s an important declaration of principles that can help restore trust in news and information delivered on digital platforms. The statement implies a responsibility to share benefits with producers of content, acknowledges the importance of accurate information and seeks to engage communities in civil discourse. This welcome change of direction couldn’t come at a more critical time.

As Zuckerberg knows, democracy requires an informed electorate with the ability to separate fact from fiction. But that’s never been more difficult.

The common foundation of everyday facts, the starting place from which we discuss differences, is eroding. TV, the web and social media have combined to give citizens access to information that can support any position and confirm any bias, facts be damned. But information is not journalism, and data begs to be organized and interpreted. By chasing clicks and taking the presidential bait, journalists have and will continue to lose ground. The answer is plain to see but hard to achieve: do the job. Journalism 101 requires the full, accurate, contextual search for truth, regardless of how it’s packaged or on what platform it’s presented. That hasn’t changed.

But so much else has. Google, Facebook and others have supplanted the power of newsrooms, already decimated by the transition to digital, by repackaging their journalism — along the way mixing it with other web content branded as news but not subject to the same ethical standards and traditions — and giving voice and access to hundreds of millions of users.

John S. Knight, whose editorial writing won a 1968 Pulitzer Prize.

Technological disruption of the news industry is not a new phenomenon, of course. In the middle of the last century, Jack Knight built a successful newspaper empire against a backdrop of familiar forces: technological change, a shifting social order at home and unrest abroad. He knew that troubled times demanded a publisher’s steady, principled hand.

While a majority of Americans are spending more time consuming news on social media platforms, the leaders of these companies have until recently declined to accept their role as the most important publishers of our time. They have shown scant interest in judging wheat from chaff while chasing market share.

The good news is that’s changing, and Zuckerberg is leading the way. He and others in Silicon Valley would be well served by turning to Jack Knight’s core values for guidance. In our digital age, it may seem counterintuitive to look to a man who had ink in his veins for advice. But the basic principles about the role of information and the media in our democracy that Knight embraced remain critically important.

First: get the business model right. Knight believed in profitability and its achievement through a quality product and innovation. Facebook’s statement last week suggests a way forward for platforms and publishers. Profit and purpose should be mutually reinforcing, not antithetical.

Second, the product has to be demonstrably true to be believed. Knight wrote, simply, “get the truth and print it.”

There is objective truth, and it matters, even if it won’t sit well with everyone. But a popular information platform that lacks standards will lack credibility and if you lack credibility, you’ll lose business. Facebook, as I read Zuckerberg’s manifesto, understands this.

Third, use technology to engage the reader. Knight was an early adopter. It was the telephone, after all, that allowed him to reach beyond his hometown of Akron and become an editor of multiple newspapers at once. He later embraced the fax and early internet, always searching for new ways to engage readers and get the news out.

The reluctant publishers of Silicon Valley know that technological innovation can drive progress. It’s not enough to use technology to amass clicks and shares; use it also to get accurate information to people as conveniently and seamlessly as possible. Technology has shrunk our world in remarkable ways, but if speed and connectivity displace substance and meaning, we lose civic value.

To preserve civic value, and restore faith in the free press, today’s new publishers should heed yesterday’s values. It would be good for business — and for democracy.