A News Cartel

I have three thoughts, good and bad, about the efforts of the rechristened Newspaper Association of America, now called the News Media Alliance, to seek antitrust wavers from Congress so it can pressure Google and Facebook to benefit their challenged businesses. Their wishes-cum-demands are well-summarized by Axios. Here’s Jim Rutenberg’s column about it.

(Note first my disclosures: I created the News Integrity Initiative, which received funds from but is independent of Facebook. I also have consulted for various newspaper companies.)

Paywalls

First, let us imagine that this would-be cartel succeeds beyond its wildest dreams in getting Google and Facebook to help put up paywalls around quality journalism in America. Yes, it’s good that the public support that quality journalism. But I am greatly concerned that such collective effort would redline journalism in America for the elite who can afford and choose to pay for it. (Fewer than 1 percent of Americans pay for The New York Times.)

What of an informed democracy then? Will the rest of the nation’s voters be left to feed on — or be fed upon by — Sinclair Broadcasting, Breitbart, Mail Online, Yahoo News, Fox News, and fake news?

I have not been terribly concerned about paywalls in the past — just critical of their chance of success — because of the laws of competition: Walls won’t succeed when there are always competitors willing to offer the same information for less or free. But now the newspapers is proposing an anticompetitive measure and they are using their political capital to beg an Administration and Congress that is otherwise at war with them and that requires adversarial coverage more than ever.

We must have a serious discussion about the responsibility journalism has not just to save its dying business models and institutions but to inform the nation first. What are our first principles? What is our existential reason to be? What is our relationship with this government? What is our responsibility? The discussion must start there.

Data

However, I am delighted to see the newspapers also ask the platforms for data about users. I have been arguing that such data are the key to the future and salvation of the news business: moving past its mass roots to know and serve customers as individuals and members of communities with greater relevance and value. I have been trying to foster just this discussion among publishers and platforms. I see multiple business benefits and revenue streams here: not only more valuable services leading to greater engagement and loyalty and higher-value advertising targeting opportunities but also commerce, events, new forms of marketing services, and more.

So bravo to the New Media Alliance to ask for this. I have just two concerns: Will they attract more bees with Congressional vinegar than with mutually beneficial business honey? And are the publishers truly able to take this data and use it well and wisely? I don’t know a publisher that is ready for such user profiling. Indeed, what I really want to see the platforms do is help the publishers learn how to do that. Is this the way to accomplish that?

Change

The publishers are demanding that the platforms change but it’s the publishers who are still in greater need of change themselves. My concern about this relationship has been that the platforms would give the publishers what they want rather than what they should want.

Example: I like Facebook’s Instant Articles a great deal; glad Facebook developed it as I’m glad that Google developed AMP to also speed up the web and foster greater engagement with content. The thing is, each of these initiatives feeds the news industry’s reflex to make the article the hammer that drives all nails. I would rather see news organizations learn new skills and develop new forms of news to serve the public, taking journalism to people where and when their conversations occur. Facebook is centering its efforts to help publishers monetize around Instant Articles. I would also like to see publishers learn how to use Facebook and other conversational tools natively — and make money that way.

In short, to make this relationship work, I’d like to see the platforms also require change of the publishers. Is this the way to make that happen? When publishers threaten technology companies with political power, they are unlikely to have a discussion built on uncomfortable and necessary truths.

Also

The Axios report says that publishers also want greater revenue shares of advertising. That is a matter of negotiation. And they want greater branding visibility, which I have supported (though we probably should undertake research to confirm that greater branding will lead to greater acceptance of factual journalism; in this time of hostitility to the institution of journalism, that is by no means certain).

When European publishers spent their political capital to force German, French, Spanish, and EU politicians to pass legislation against the platforms and to dig in on antitrust investigations — leading to record proposed fines — I said that though I did not like the tactics, I gave the publishers credit for bringing the platforms to the table (something the platforms don’t agree with). But I then said that once the platforms are at the table, it is time for the publishers to move past war footing to collaboration. I have seen the platforms reach out to try to do this. Now publishers in not only Europe but also the U.S. are slapping that hand.

Hey, this is business. This is politics. Except today, politics are different and more dangerous than at any time in my lifetime. We need the news business to watch the politicians, not plot with them. We need the platforms to help them do that.

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