A Trio of Tweet Typhoons

Jeff Jarvis
May 15, 2020 · 11 min read

Here are three tweetstorms — nay, typhoons — I engaged in lately, conveniently in one spot, adapted for Medium.

On Ben Smith’s New York Times column about protectionist legislation in Australia trying to get platforms to hand money to media companies:

Oh FFS, no, the news business crushed itself by relying on protectionism over innovation. Ben Smith goes all Murdoch & endorses Australia’s digital Stamp Act. This isn’t media criticism. It’s lobbying. “Big Tech Has Crushed the News Business.”

It’s as if Ben never worked at BuzzFeed, a company that built its one-time fortune exploiting the internet reality about which he is now willfully ignorant. No, Google & FB are not taking content; they are sending audience to publishers unable to build valued relationships.

Of course, he writes this from the safety of one of the companies — like WaPo & WSJ — that get virtually all the subscription revenue to be had in the U.S. Maybe they should share some with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, eh?

By the logic of this lobbying campaign, PanAm should still be paying Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Tesla should be paying Exxon. The entitlement.

I’m on record saying Facebook succumbing to the blackmail of Murdoch and the pols in his pocket is a bad idea. This will not save the old, dying news industry. It will only delay its death.

What bullshit: “…most news executives in this country share a viewpoint on the platforms, having seen them pull advertising dollars from the news business and spread misinformation at the expense of professional journalism.”

Those ad dollars were not given by God to news companies. Those companies were not prepared for competition in a new reality. Their customers were prepared to find a better deal, though. For too long, local news companies exploited their monopolies & now they pay the price.

And Ben damned well knows that the platforms do more than distribute disinformation. He spent some years getting them to distribute his news and his colleagues’ banal listicles. How dare he reduce the net to a Murdochian meme? I am so disappointed.

Ben: “Even as the platforms employ armies of powerful lobbyists, politicians remain eager to please the press that covers them.” Me: Even as news organizations employ a few pathetic lobbyists, they remain eager to please the politicians they should cover seeking protectionism.

Ben: “Google’s proud defiance and lectures about technology now come across as a blend of arrogance and naïveté.” Me: Look in the mirror, Ben.

Ben: “But in this dire moment, the news business is starting to win some political battles.” Me: In this entirely predictable and avoidable moment, the news business has cashed in all its political capital and sold its soul to lose the battle for the trust of the public.

BTW, as a matter of reporting, I’m surprised that other than perfunctory efforts to email a Google exec he slams and inserting a quote from another, Ben does not go to the effort to find some who would disagree with his line. It wouldn’t be hard.

I find it odd that Ben says Google is far behind in working with news orgs. Everyone I know would say Google has done a good job building relationships there & Facebook is doing well catching up. Facebook would say that. The only place I hear what Ben says: Murdoch + Springer.

Springer has played Facebook off Google for a few years and Murdoch is saying nice things about Facebook only after cashing its checks. It doesn’t take much sophistication to see the game here.

This is not just the Murdoch/Springer company line. It also became BuzzFeed’s company line after years spent exploiting and enjoying the dynamics of the net for mememoney. Then, suddenly, when its fortunes sank, BuzzFeed stuck out its tin plate and whined:

So now the Axis powers of Old Media — Murdoch, Springer, BuzzFeed — ally with the politicians they should be covering — who are also threatened by the new — to try to blackmail the Gutenbergs & Caxtons & Franklins of our age to pay their new Stamp Tax. We’ve seen this before.

Note well that newspapers were once the cocky new kids. To quote James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald: “Books have had their day — the theaters have had their day — the temple of religion has had its day….

Bennett: “…A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all these in the great movements of human thought & human civilization. A newspaper can send more souls to heaven, & save more from Hell, than all the churches or chapels in New York — besides making money at the same time.”

I was going to get to this in the flow but since Ben asks I will insert disclosure: I receive nothing personally from any tech company. My school has raised money from Facebook & Google to pay for training, scholarships, and — wait for it — grants to news organizations.

Pardon me while I take a moment to reread Areopagitica.

In the intermission I give you this, sent by a friend, to compare and contrast:

So now let me address what Ben asks me to: Working with platforms. I believe we must, for the public we wish to serve is there, for they know how to succeed on the net better than we do (WWGD?), for we can do much in collaboration, for we have much to learn.

So I helped raise money for my school from platforms. I receive nothing personally. What does the money do? NewsQ is a project to define quality in news so that platforms will make more informed decisions in promoting and placing ads on quality journalism. This to help journalism.

Also, the News Integrity Initiative supported important efforts in fighting disinformation, like First Draft, Data & Society, and the European Journalism Center. Now it is funding training to make more journalists able to build product on the net. This to help journalism.

I have long tried to build bridges between the news and tech industry and, indeed, between the platforms themselves for the sake of reinventing news for a new reality. This to help journalism.

I was not in favor of direct payments to news companies from the platforms because I thought it would give them false comfort and I wanted something much more valuable: Help in rethinking the form and strategy of the news industry.

This is why I now oppose government-imposed fees to the news industry: because it’s nonsensical, because the companies demanding money do not deserve it. If money’s going to go anywhere, it should go to innovators who will reinvent journalism.

I can predict precisely what will happen with government-imposed fees or handouts: It will go to the companies that deserve to die, leaving no room for those who should be born. Even in Canada:

https://twitter.com/JesseBrown/status/1259505401256706048

I’m not opposed to regulation. We already have regulation. I am part of a Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression. Its report with a new framework for the regulatory discussion will come out imminently.

What this discussion is about in the end is freedom: of speech and, by the way, of the press. For the news industry and its agents to gang up with government to disadvantage the platforms where at long those ignored by mass media can be heard is abhorrent.

Next, a thread about a Press Gazette piece claiming that Google and Facebook killed Ben’s BuzzFeed News:

What bullshit. Google & Facebook did not kill BuzzFeed News. Truth is, news at BuzzFeed never had a business model. It was a charity supported by the parent, listicle biz. I’ve always feared BuzzFeed news would be doomed when tough times hit. Well…1/

It took me time to figure out BuzzFeed’s business model. This is how I put it: They sell a skill. Namely: “We know how to make our shit viral — look at all our hot lists. So, advertiser, hire us to make your shit viral.” I like that idea of selling a skill. News should, too. 2/

BuzzFeed was not a destination. It brilliantly exploited FB, Twitter, YT, Google to be distributed socially; 80% of its traffic was away from its own site. Remember: It sold a skill. We can do this for you, Madam Marketer. 3/

BuzzFeed’s game was ruined when copycats and so-called influencers exploited its model for their crap, severely degrading the experience on the platforms, which had to adapt, downgrading it all — just as Google had to do w/ crappy content farms w/ Panda.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed started a news division and hired Ben to edit it. He did that brilliantly. They did great work. They hired top-notch talent like Janine Gibson. They broke huge stories. They were the envy of many a journo and journo prognosticator. 5/

But all along, I worried: Where’s the business model for BuzzFeed News? News is a destination in a distributed world: doomed. Most of it is not socially viral. It didn’t fit with BuzzFeed’s model. Why did it exist? For respectability? As charity? I never could figure it out. 6/

Mind you, I’m grateful that BuzzFeed and Jonah Peretti supported the news division for as long as they did. Great work came out of it. 7/

I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew when trouble hit — when investors squirmed, the market tanked, growth leveled — the news division would end up with target on its back. Because there isn’t an explosive, BuzzFeed business model there; never was. 8/

BuzzFeed mocked poor, old media companies that had to rely on advertising on their destination sites … until BuzzFeed, too, sold into that model and, like everyone else, had to rely on crappy, commodifying programmatic models. Welcome to media. 9/

Then Peretti & Smith started whining: The platforms should pay them for content. Ha! In proper economics, the platforms should have *charged* BuzzFeed et all for all that golden distribution. But they didn’t because especially Google began with a principle: no paid placement. 10/

This is how we get Smith whining in the Times, selling the Murdoch party line that the platforms owe media companies. Bullshit. Here was my response. 11/

And here is Ben Thompson’s brilliant takedown of the Smith/Peretti/Murdoch line.

And now comes the Press Gazette, trying to connect Dr. Frankenstein electrodes to a campaign: “DUOPOLY: STOP Google and Facebook destroying journalism.” Stop whining and look in the mirror. Protecting journalism as it was has not worked for 25 years. Learn from that. Rebuild. 13/

Remember I said BuzzFeed sells a skill? What skill does journalism sell? I say we should sell the skills of convening & serving communities, of listening, of enabling transparency, of improving the public conversation. We have to learn those skills before we can sell them. 14/

Instead, journalism thinks it can still sell the skill of producing a product called news in the form of stories and publications. Journalists want to sell writing as their skill. But now everyone can write; makes selling writing hard. 15/

News publishers aren’t selling a skill.They sell their souls to the pols & governments on whom they should be keeping independent watch, cashing in their political capital & conflict in hopes of getting protectionist legislation and handouts. That’s no business model, either. 16/

Facebook and Google are not killing news. News has been slowly killing itself by refusing to learn new skills to sell, new ways to bring value to the public we serve, new ways to listen to the needs of that public, new ways to earn trust, new ways to compete, not complain. 17/

The best way for Google & Facebook to help news is not handouts that will go into the pockets of hedge funds and disappear with the wind. What we need is help creating new strategies for news, new means to inform a society that does not trust us, new business models. 18/

Protectionism is not a business model. Whining is not a business model. Handouts are not a business model. Lobbying politicians is not a business model. Adding value to communities and their conversations, helping them meet their goals: that is the only model worth pursuing. 19/

And then there is this thread about an oddly related event: a member of the British Parliament setting up a fact-checking site:

Hmmm. So a member of Parliament starts a fact-checking service. On the surface, good: more hands. But do we want our politicians to run (and compete with) news organizations? Whatthink?

https://twitter.com/DamianCollins/status/1260525790975848450

Among the “supporters” of this effort are eight currently sitting legislators, at least one lobbyist, a few tech-haters. What’s the *real* agenda to this: fact-checking? Or making the internet and its platforms look bad? I bring skepticism to the skeptics.

I await for the moment these pols use their political clout to demand that they be included in fact-checking by journalists at, say, Facebook. What conflict of interest. I also dread the fact-checking efforts from the right in the U.S. A perilous precedent here.

I wouldn’t call this fact-checking. It’s a pronouncement of government from an organization with a sitting MP from that government among its “supporters.”

One risk of a venture such as this is that it will end up spreading further that which it attempts to tamp down; some problem media have. It feeds the trolls; plays into their hands. I suggest the founders reread (there I give them credit) Milton’s Areopagitica.

[See: There was a reason I was rereading Milton…]

“The punishing of wits enhances their authority… a forbidden writing is thought to be a certain spark of truth that flies up in the faces of them who seek to tread it out. This Order, therefore, may provide a nursing-mother to sects.” — Areopagitica.

“Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Milton

For good measure, I leave you with my favorite line from Areopagitica: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

This new venture of the MPs’ treats the internet as an enemy of truth. No. Truth’s enemy is the lack of education & education’s enemy is the lack of resources & it’s MPs who provide those resources, or don’t. By attacking the net, they attack the conversation that is democracy.

So fact-checking looks like a virtuous activity for MPs and their lobbying allies to indulge in. But beware officials decreeing what is true and not. They decree. We decide truth.

Disclosure: Damian Collins and I met as part of a Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression. We disagreed there, too.

Here’s a nice test for Damian Collins’ new venture: Will it fact-check his boss, Boris?

BTW, I should be surprised that a lobbyist for expensive media would support this effort by MPs to compete with media but that indicates to me clearly that the raison dêtre is not fact-checking but instead trying to denigrate the net and platforms. This is protectionism.

This is nothing new. Old authorities try to control new speech. The Pope issued a list of forbidden books. Parliament passed its licensing & stamp acts. America had its censors. Beware official condemnation and blessing of speech.

And what was I just saying about the peril of official, government fact-checking….

https://twitter.com/katka_cseh/status/1260528932392259587

Folks have given examples of officials trying their hands at fact-checking not working before:

https://twitter.com/Isaduriez/status/1260548794346876928

https://twitter.com/OlafSteenfadt/status/1260544047304892417

https://twitter.com/ironsjon/status/1260543246008307712

https://twitter.com/Sebauyanet/status/1260532493331116035

Plus:

https://twitter.com/Isaduriez/status/1260552817380638720

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

Jeff Jarvis

Written by

Blogger & prof at CUNY’s Newmark J-school; author of Geeks Bearing Gifts, Public Parts, What Would Google Do?, Gutenberg the Geek

Whither news?

Posts questioning assumptions, finding opportunities in journalism

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