This is the full text of a lecture delivered by Emily Bell last week at the University of Cambridge, where she is the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Media 2015–16 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. An edited version of this speech has been published by Columbia Journalism Review.
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming.
It is a great pleasure and honour to be in Cambridge this week as part of the Humanitas CRASSH visiting lecture programme. I must thank my former Observer colleague Professor John Naughton for proposing that I do this, and to the Humanitas committee for bringing me here. I would also like to thank St. John’s College, and in particular the Master, Chris Dobson, for their wonderful hospitality.
The first talk in this series has a rather apocalyptic title — ‘The End of News As We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism’. An American colleague at Columbia took one look at the promotional flier, complete with what appears to be a smoking cross, and said, ‘is it a religious talk?’, to which I could happily answer ‘no’. I guess I have committed an internet original sin by introducing the dreaded ‘reality gap’ headline, in that this is not intended as a Biblical warning or prophecy about the evils of Facebook or any other platform.
However, something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years, than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability — virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging and chat apps — and massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many.
Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks.
Should we be accepting of those risks? Do we adequately understand what they are? Are we working hard enough to interrogate new systems of power which have the scale to challenge governments, but are unaccountable except to the markets, and intentionally opaque.
What I want to talk about today is a small subsidiary activity of the main business of social platforms, but one of central interest to many of us. I want to examine how journalism is changed by the power of the Internet and specifically social networks.
Let’s start with a topical story which does in fact involve a Church.
It has been a good week for the public image of journalism. Spotlight, the fictionalised account of how the Boston Globe investigated child abuse allegations in the Catholic Church in 2002 and 2003, just won the Oscar for best picture. It is a remarkably good film that makes spreadsheets, Gap clothing, and satchels seem glamorous. I am sure applications to Columbia Journalism School will rise as a result. Journalists everywhere have been able to enjoy the vicarious glow of Spotlight, even as they slot yet another Kardashian into the sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail homepage.
Spotlight is a love letter to investigative journalism, and it has the distinct advantage of being mostly true. However, other things were going on at the time at the Boston Globe that tell a different story about journalism. A decade before uncovering the abuse scandal, the Globe was bought by The New York Times for over $1 billion. In 2013, a decade AFTER the Globe had picked up a Pulitzer Prize for the story, it was sold again, this time for $70m by the Times to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox and Liverpool FC.
So, over twenty years, a hundred year old news organisation lost over 90 per cent of its value, despite scaling the pinnacle of both excellence and importance in journalistic achievement. In September 2002, just a couple of weeks after the Spotlight team had printed the first serious allegations of child abuse levelled at priests, Google News launched.
In fact in the postscript to Spotlight, we are pointed to the paradox of the effect the web had on journalism: the stories reached further sooner, encouraging more investigation and disclosure around the world. The Internet essentially enabled the Globe’s investigation to become international. Yet, somewhere off camera in 2003, the publishers of the Globe’s journalism were wringing their hands over the uncertainty of the underlying business model.
The Boston Globe is not alone in this either. The Washington Post, where Marty Baron — the Liev Schrieber character in Spotlight — is now editor was also sold in 2013 — to Amazon founder and entrepreneur Jeff Bezos.
The great publishing families of America, the Sulzbergers who own The New York Times, and the Grahams who owned the Post, simply could not fund the transition of two august news brands into a digital future. Here in the UK we know what this feels like. The Independent ceases to print this month, and over the past ten years 300 local print titles have disappeared.
The Internet and the social web enable journalists to do powerful work, whilst at the same time contributing towards making publishing journalism an uneconomic venture.
What has happened to journalism in the past five years through the impact of social media, has been as big an upheaval as what happened in the previous fifteen, when we thought there could be no greater change than the arrival of the widely available web.
Two significant things have already happened which we have not paid enough attention to:
Firstly, news publishers have lost control over distribution.
It has moved away to social media and platform companies that publishers could not have built even had they wanted to. It is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable. The news business has been embracing this, and ‘digital native’ entrants such as BuzzFeed, Vox, and Fusion have built their presence on the premise that they are working within this system, not against it.
Secondly, the inevitable outcome of this is the increase in power of social media companies.
The largest of the platform and social media companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and even second order companies such as Twitter, Snapchat and emerging messaging app companies, have become extremely powerful in terms of controlling who publishes what to whom, and how that publication is monetised.
There is a far greater concentration of power in this respect, than there ever has been in the past. Networks favour economies of scale, so our careful curation of plurality in media markets such as the UK, disappears at a stroke, and the market dynamics and anti-trust laws the Americans rely on to sort out such anomalies are failing.
Let me expand on these points and describe why this shift has happened so quickly.
The mobile revolution is behind much of this.
Because of the revolution in mobile, the amount of time we spend online, the number of things we do online, and the attention we spend on platforms has exploded. In the UK, the amount of time we spend online has doubled in a decade, up to 20 hours a week, up from 10 hours in 2005. At its peak we watched 24 hours a week of television, when there was little or no other visual electronic entertainment.
Two years ago the time we spent looking at our phones, and the time we spent on desktop browsers in Britain, was roughly 50/50, two years later, it is 60/40 in favour of mobile. This is really significant, as the design of our phones, and their capabilities (thank you Apple), favour apps, which foster different behaviour . Google did recent research through its Android platform that showed whilst we might have an average of 25 apps on our phones, the usual power laws apply, and we only use four or five of those apps EVERY day, and of those apps we use every day, the most significant chunk of that time is spent in a social media app. And at the moment the reach of Facebook is far greater than any other social platform.
In America this is even more pronounced than here. The majority of US adults are Facebook users, and the majority of those users regularly get some kind of news from Facebook, which according to Pew Research Center data means that around 40 percent of US adults overall consider Facebook a source of news.
As the time spent within apps increases, we see new paths emerging for news delivery both within social apps and sometimes from external sources. Every morning, for instance, at the moment, a news bot sends links through my Facebook Messenger account which I respond to. Financial site Quartz has made a news app which apes a messaging app. In this respect the future is already here. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Messenger, has a significant stake in this too.
1.People are increasingly using their smartphones for everything
2. It is mostly through apps, and in particular social and messaging apps, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Twitter.
3. The competition to be one of those apps is intense. Competitive advantage for platforms relies on being able to keep your users within an app. The more your users are within your app, the more you know about them, the more that information can then be used to sell advertising, the higher your revenues.
Journalism and the delivery of news has become an important part of this battle for attention on mobile, people are curious about what is going on in the world right now, the sports scores, the weather, what their friends have been doing and how Donald Trump fared on Super Tuesday.
The competition for attention is fierce. The ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’, Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon (five if you add in Microsoft), are engaged in a prolonged and torrid war over whose technologies, platforms and even ideologies will win. It is as fierce as newspaper rivalries in the 60s and network television in the 70s, but with much more at stake.
In the last year journalists and news publishers have therefore unexpectedly found themselves the beneficiaries of this conflict.
Third party platforms really DO want to work with publishers.
It all started almost a year ago, with the launch of something called ‘Discover’ on the popular photo messaging app, Snapchat. ‘Discover’ is actually very old fashioned in concept, in that it gave a number of ‘channels’ to brands. Vice, BuzzFeed, the Wall Street Journal, Cosmo, the Daily Mail, all popped up on Discover. The articles were the same but they were specifically designed for and published ONTO the Snapchat platform, so instead of clicking away to a news publisher’s website, you swipe around cat memes and football scores within Snapchat. Publishers get bigger traffic from this, and theoretically more advertising.
Facebook executives had already been thinking of doing something similar, and immediately followed their rivals Snapchat with a concept called ‘Instant Articles’. The idea here is that if you are a publisher, you hook an RSS feed of articles you want to put onto Facebook into the Instant Article tools, and your journalism, its design and advertising seamlessly appear on a Facebook page, far faster than if someone on Facebook were clicking through to your own website. And, a bonus here, you keep all the money from the ads you sell, and you get some of the money from around the articles Facebook sells for you.
Google, and Apple, who both view Facebook with extreme suspicion, were not happy with this land grab for publishing, and started their own initiatives. Apple News launched in September, as a fast news aggregator, without the social component of news feed, and Google, which is essentially in competition with both Apple AND Facebook, launched something called ‘Accelerated Mobile Pages’, which rolled out a couple of weeks ago. AMP, for short, means that if you are a publisher and don’t want Snapchat or Facebook to be the only way users see articles quickly, you can use Google’s AMP to optimise them for you on the mobile web. Not wanting to be left out, Twitter also launched its own ‘moments’, an aggregation of trending material on the platform to tell complete stories about events.
All this sounds very promising doesn’t it? Resources from social media being deployed to help grow audiences for news companies, and consequently revenues? Up to a point, yes.
It is very good news that well resourced platform companies are designing systems which help news distribution. But as one door opens another one is closing.
At the same time that publishers are being enticed to publish directly into apps and new systems which will rapidly grow their mobile audiences, Apple announced it would allow ad blocking software to be downloaded from its App store.
In other words, if as a publisher your alternative to going onto a distributed platform is to make money through mobile advertising, anyone on an iPhone can now block all ads and their invidious tracking software. Articles which appear within platforms, such as Discover on Snapchat or Instant Articles on Facebook are largely though not totally immune from blockers. Effectively, the already very small share of mobile digital advertising publishers might be getting independently from mobile, is potentially cut away. (As an aside, one might add that publishers had it coming from weighing down their pages with intrusive ads nobody wanted in the first place.)
There are three possibilities for commercial publishers.
One is to push even more of your journalism straight to an app like Facebook and its Instant Articles where adblocking is not impossible but harder than at browser level. As one publisher put it to me ‘we look at the amount we might make from mobile and we suspect that even if we gave everything straight to Facebook, we would still be better off’. The risks though, in being reliant on the revenue and traffic from one distributor are very high.
The second option is to build other businesses and revenues away from distributed platforms. Accept that the vast numbers looked for in reach are not only not helping you, but are actively damaging your journalism, so move to a measurement of engagement rather than scale.
Membership or subscription are most commonly thought about in this context. Ironically, the prerequisites for this are having a strong brand identity which subscribers feel affinity towards. In a world where content is highly distributed this is far harder to achieve than when it is tied to packaged physical products. Even in the handful of cases where subscription is working, it is often not making up the shortfall in advertising.
The third is of course to make advertising that doesn’t look like advertising at all, so adblockers can’t detect it. This used to be called ‘advertorial’ or sponsorship, but now is known as ‘native advertising’, and it has grown to nearly a quarter of all digital display advertising in the US. In fact digitally native companies like BuzzFeed, Vox and hybrids like Vice, have disrupted the failing publishing model by essentially becoming advertising agencies — which are themselves in danger of failing. What I mean by this is that they deal directly with advertisers, they make the kind of viral video films and gifs we see scattered all over our Facebook pages, and then publish them to all those people who have previously ‘liked’ or shared other material from that publisher.
The logical answer reached by many publishers to much of this is to build their own presence as a hedge to control, and invest in their destination apps. But as we have seen, even your own app has to be compliant with the distribution standards of others in order to work. And investing money in maintaining your own presence,comes at a time when offline advertising (particularly in print) is under pressure, and online advertising is not growing either. The critical balance between destination and distribution is probably the hardest investment decision traditional publishers have to make right now.
Publishers are reporting that Instant Articles are giving them maybe three or four times the traffic they would expect to get from other articles that were available on the web but not presented via Instant Articles. The temptation for publishers to go ‘all in’ on distributed platforms, and just start creating journalism and stories that work on the social web, is getting stronger. I can imagine we will see news companies totally abandoning production capacity, technology capacity and even advertising departments and delegating it all to third party platforms in an attempt to stay afloat.
However, this is a high risk strategy: you lose control over your relationship with your readers and viewers, your revenue, and even the path your stories take to reach their destination.
With billions of users and hundreds of thousands of articles, pictures, and videos arriving online everyday, the social platforms have to employ algorithms to try and sort through the important and recent and popular and decide who ought to see what. And we have no option but to trust them to do this.
Even Twitter, which previously published a ‘raw feed’ of your followers’ tweets, latest first, has started to employ algorithms to calibrate this.
Only last week in the US a number of high profile right wing bloggers complained that they were suffering from something called ‘shadow banning’. Effectively, they thought their Tweets were not getting the response rate or attention they would normally because Twitter had secretly ‘muted’ them to the rest of the network. Twitter denied that this was the case, but as other right wing commentators have lost their blue ticked status or been banned entirely on the grounds of ‘hate speech’ there is an uneasy feeling even among those on the left, that in terms of politics we are establishing new tighter boundaries about acceptable speech, which might please us when they favour our views, but stifle us when we disagree. No platforming on platforms will be as hot and contentious a topic as it is on campuses.
In truth we have little or no insight into how each company is sorting its news. If Facebook decides for instance that video stories will do better than text stories, we cannot know that unless they tell us or unless we observe it. If Snapchat wants to offer much more favourable terms of access to its platform to publishers it likes than others, then it is allowed to do so and there is no requirement for fairness.
Outside existing laws, there is no restraint or compunction on any platform to restrict certain types of content and to promote others, as this is an unregulated field. There is no transparency into the internal working of these systems, as to open them up would make them, say the companies, unusable as spammers and competitors could undermine them.
How much should we care about these shifts and what should we do about them?
There are huge benefits to have a new class of technically able, socially aware, financially successful and highly energetic people like Mark Zuckerberg taking over functions and economic power from some of the staid, politically entrenched and occasionally corrupt gatekeepers we have had in the past. But we ought to be aware too that this cultural, economic, and political shift is profound. And until recently largely undiscussed.
We are handing the controls of important parts of our public and private lives to a very small number of people, who are unelected and unaccountable.
We might well trust Mark Zuckerberg more than we trust David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch, but should we build a system predicated on delegating civic responsibilities to the private sector?
In the US we see Google developing a driverless car and installing fiber networks in cities such as Charlotte and Austin. These are key pieces of infrastructure owned by private interests, yet they will in the future collect the data relating to every part of our lives as we drive and wander around our responsive cities. We need regulation to make sure that all citizens gain equal access to the networks of opportunity and services they need.
We also need to know that all public speech and expression will be treated transparently, even if they cannot be treated equally. This is a basic requirement for a functioning democracy.
For this to happen, there has to be at least some agreement that the responsibilities in this area are shifting.
The people who built these companies did not set out to do so in order to take over the responsibilities of a free press. In fact they are rather alarmed that this is the outcome of their engineering success.
Only last week Mark Zuckerberg was talking to a former CRASSH visiting lecturer and Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner. Dopfner asked Zuckerberg a question: ‘Are you a publisher, or a distribution platform?’
Zuckerberg answered : ‘Definitely a distribution platform’, asked why he didn’t wish to become a publisher, Zuckerberg responded ‘Because we are a technology company...’ explaining that the new partnerships the company is building through products like instant articles were to address precisely the fact that Facebook is emphatically not a publisher.
When pressed on the role of Facebook in defining free speech, Zuckerberg said :
‘ While we generally believe in free speech and giving everyone as much ability to speak as possible, in practice there are lots of barriers to that, whether it’s legal restrictions, technological restrictions, or you can’t share what you want if you don’t have access to the internet. And there are social restrictions where someone could be suppressing someone else’s freedom to express themselves. So our North Star is that we want to give the most voice possible to the most people’.
Defining what constitutes these often conflicting barriers, is in itself an act of editing and therefore ultimately a political act. Facebook for instance has been very active in Germany in removing anti-refugee sentiment and threats towards that community from its pages, as it sees it as hate speech. In the US, Zuckerberg personally announced that gun stores would not be allowed to advertise on Facebook, even though in many states they are legally allowed to trade.
In many areas, the speed with which social platforms have taken on the roles of publisher has meant that the companies themselves are struggling with issues which the free press has grappled with on a daily basis over the course of the past two hundred years. People upload newsworthy events to Facebook, who don’t even think of themselves as journalists, and what rights do they have?
Facebook and others might like to consider adopting one model from the press which I believe has been effective, that of a public editor or an ombudsperson, or panel which independently investigates accountability. Twitter has recently convened a vast panel of experts to form a Trust and Safety Council, a willing concession to the increasing challenges to how Twitter moderates the terms of discourse and inclusion on its platform.
In the courts in America at the moment, we have the FBI challenging Apple over access to a mobile phone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. Yesterday, a Facebook executive was arrested after WhatsApp, its messaging service, refused to comply with a court order in Brazil. Last week entertainment and platform companies in America were invited to a meeting at the White House on the subject of how to counter terrorism.
Hillary Clinton and others have been public in wanting to enlist social media companies in ‘fighting ISIS’. Many feel this a very uncomfortable piece of policy theater, but is it the place of social platforms to be co-opted?
Indeed, platform companies have responded with both Twitter and Facebook closing thousands of ISIS- related Facebook and Twitter feeds and accounts. Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey have found themselves targets of ISIS propaganda.
Terrorism is the most salient example, but what might be next? Will the Government want to promote certain messages about its foreign policy, but keep others quiet? Should algorithms be regionally targeted to promote favourable stories about certain policy initiatives? Does all government propaganda get treated equally?
Platforms which control the terms of expression, advertising and even the speed of distribution, internationally as well as within the US, have inherited the same pressures editors and publisher were subjected to before them. One reason for denying the role of publisher is that it keeps away a whole host of expensive duties traditionally assumed by those who distribute information to the world.
One of the criticisms thus far levelled against platform companies, is that they have cherry picked the profitable parts of the publishing process and sidestepped the more expensive business of actually creating good journalism. If the current nascent experiments such as Instant Articles lead to a more integrated relationship with journalism, it is possible that we will see a more significant shift of production costs, particularly around technology and advertising sales follow.
The reintermediation of information which once looked as though it was going to be fully democratised by the progress of the open web is likely to make the mechanisms for funding journalism get worse before they get better. Looking at the prospects for mobile advertising and the aggressive growth targets Apple, Facebook, Google et al have to meet to satisfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that unless social platforms return a great deal more money back to the source, producing news for the most part is likely to become a non-profit pursuit not an engine of capitalism.
To be sustainable, news and journalism companies will need to radically alter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news media companies will be fashioned around a studio model of managing different stories, talents, and products across a vast range of devices and platforms. As this shift happens then posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favour of hyper distribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely.
Even if you think of yourself as a technology company, you are making critical decisions about everything from the access to platforms, the shape of journalism or speech, the inclusion or banning of certain content, the right for certain operators to be considered publishers and others not.
Leaders of technology companies need to recognise that fact.
“‘With great power comes great responsibility’ as the French National convention had it in 1793 after the revolution.
The broader question for society is whether social platforms and big tech can be trusted to provide the transparency required, and what mechanisms we can use to enforce this.
The media sector in the UK has been traditionally very heavily regulated, yet there seems to be a complete absence of public debate around these most important issues. If we can expend the amount of time we have on completely overhauling the self-regulation of the press yet somehow manage to leave out dominant distribution platforms, then it suggests that government either doesn’t understand the case for public scrutiny, or isn’t inclined to act in our best interests.
One pressing issue is how we should frame the current mauling of the BBC in this context. If it has a business model which is largely immune from death by Snapchat, and it has a rich history of thinking about how technology and content can combine for the public good, it seems particularly shortsighted to be putting it under existential threat at the present moment. Think tanks, policy centers, regulators, and yes - even reporters should to my mind be picking away at this complex new paradigm, and the BBC’s capabilities ought to be central to the debate.
It would be a mistake, in my opinion, not to include platform technologies as a core part of imagining how we want our public sphere and societies to work — in the same way that we would consider the BBC, the press and other utilities in this picture.
We have heard the BBC express its desire to become a platform, without much indication that the organisation really has a clear understanding of what this means. But it would be so invigorating to see a public service organisation help define standards for digital publishing which can help all journalism, wherever it takes place, become sustainable and supported in a fragmented and distributed world.
There is a role for centers of excellence, like Cambridge and this programme, or the Tow Center at Columbia, to foster and promote the exchange of ideas around civic technology and communications.
What happens to the current class of news publishers is a much less important question than that of what kind of news and information society we want to create and how we can help shape this.
As of now these questions are still in flux and are likely to remain dynamic for some time. When Indian regulators recently ruled that Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ programme was essentially illegal, it provoked a cultural conversation as well as an economic one. ‘How can you deny the poorest people in your community internet access?’ was the pro Facebook argument, ‘Do we really want our next 100 million citizens coming online to do so through an edited version of the internet controlled out of Palo Alto?’ was the response.
I have seen arguments around halting the roll out of low-cost connectivity through programs like Facebook Free Basics, called retrogressive. Maybe, but I don’t believe there is anything retrogressive about governments and public bodies really interrogating what kind of connected world we want to live in.
I am sentimental about the roar of the presses, the filthy offices and nicotine habits of the Spotlight era, but those trappings of journalism are probably best consigned to the dustbin of history.
Many of us are however legitimately concerned that journalism, in all its forms, does not emerge from a period of technological change where it is weakened, where the protections and resources available to previous generations of journalists are not available to the next.
Just as journalism companies are thinking about how they shift the production towards a distributed model, so platform companies need to think about their own internal organisation to support journalism and acts of journalism. Without a commitment to reliable information, social media ultimately comes unstuck as an economic force.
I would like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Tim Cook and whichever man, or hopefully woman, is the next communications billionaire, to really consider themselves publishers, not simply ‘a technology company’. I would like them to take seriously the fragility of good journalism and what steps are needed to make sure it thrives.
Maybe next time Mark Zuckerberg is asked if he is a platform or a publisher he will answer ‘what is the difference?’
Emily Bell is Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.