Conflict of interest is thick in media’s coverage of Facebook’s and Google’s decisiions

Facebook, Google, Murdoch, and news

Jeff Jarvis
Feb 18 · 11 min read

Here’s my interview with ABC News Australia and then my discussion with Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review about the fallout from Murdoch’s media law and pressure on the platforms in Australia.The discussion with Mathew occurs on Galley, CJR’s platform for dialog. I’m posting it here because Mathew got me to sum up my views in one place.

Mathew Ingram: Over the past year, Australia has become Ground Zero in the battle over payment for content, since that country is working on a mandatory code that would force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for using even a small portion of their articles. Both Google and Facebook have threatened to pull some or all of their services from the country if the code goes through as planned, but at the same time, Google has been cutting side deals with larger publishers — not just in Australia, but in France, Germany and a number of other countries — to pay them for featuring their content in its Google News Showcase.

We’re talking this week with journalists and other experts about how we got here and where this whole phenomenon is likely to end. Our next guest is Jeff Jarvis, who is the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where he helped create the News Integrity Initiative (which is partially funded by Facebook). Prior to joining CUNY, Jeff was the president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications.

Jeff, thanks very much for doing this. Since we began this discussion series, there have been a couple of big developments, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on either or both of them: 1) News Corp. announced it has signed a deal with Google to be paid for its content, and 2) Facebook just announced that it is blocking Australian publishers from posting or sharing news, and blocking users in that country from seeing or sharing any news.

Jeff Jarvis: This is a disappointing day for the internet and for news in many ways.

First, Google: What Google’s payment to News Corp. demonstrates is that media blackmail works. Even if this is not a payment to pay directly for links, this is still a terrible precedent for the net and its architecture and ethic. No one, not Google, not you or I, should be pressured into paying for linking to content. That, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee told Australian authorities, breaks the web. I would have hoped that Google would have stood up for principle — that is for the open net. It’s a company; even I — author of a book called What Would Google Do? — should not expect too much of them. On the one hand, they are not paying for links per se. But they still paid the devil Murdoch. They caved.

As I wrote in Australia’s Crikey, I am also sorely disappointed in my old friends at The Guardian for cynically falling in league with the devil Murdoch. The Guardian was to be Australia’s guardian angel fighting him.

In the end, regulation that tries to take power away from platforms inevitably gives them more. In Europe, under the Right to be Forgotten, Google decides what we may remember. In Germany, under NetzDG, Facebook decides what speech is illegal, outside a courtroom. Now in Australia, Google decides which news organizations should get money. Small sites and startups will suffer for this is a power game; more money goes to the more powerful. I do not think Google cares much about news. There will not be much traffic to its News Showcase. The CPM cost of this — if we knew the amount — would doubtless be extraordinary. This is not a payment for news. It is baksheesh paid to Murdoch, demanded by his bagmen, the politicians in his pocket.

What also disturbs me is that news organizations, which lately turned from utopian in their coverage of technology to dystopian, never reveal their own conflict of interest in their coverage of the net and its current proprietors. The moral panic in media coverage serves media’s ends as this episode sorely demonstrates.

Let us be quite realistic about the use of these funds. It will not go to journalists. It will not improve news. It will go to the rapacious owners and hedge funds that control news companies.

Now Facebook: There are two interpretations. The positive one is that Facebook stood on principle, decided not to cave in to Murdoch’s blackmail (or not again as Zuckerberg already presented a check to News Corp’s Robert Thomson in New York a year ago), and defended the sanctity of the link on the net. The cynical interpretation is that news is a damned pain in the ass for Facebook and this moment allows them to return to a Facebook devoted to puppies, parties, and getting laid. We shall see. I worry, though, about what will happen when your Australian uncle Joe shares disinformation and you are not allowed to combat that by sharing news. I do hope researchers study the impact.

In any case, I am disappointed in the platforms for not adequately defending the principles and freedoms of the net. I am disappointed in news organizations that played along with Murdoch — just as we barely begin to come out of the nightmare he caused in the United States and just as he brings his Fox News-like poison to Australia with Sky News there and to the UK with a new news channel. This is when we in journalism should be shunning and shaming Murdoch and his cronies. Instead, news organizations danced with the devil. I hope the tune was worth the price of their souls.

A bad day for news. A bad day for the net.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It does seem a little odd to me that Facebook has made so much of its commitment to quality news, and its desire to improve the information environment on its platform — Mark Zuckerberg gave a whole speech about his commitment to free speech principles — and yet an entire country has just been blocked from sharing or publishing news. Does that surprise you at all?

Jeff Jarvis: Facebook warned it would do this, so I was not surprised. They had already agreed to pay many companies for full articles for the News Tab (including News Corp.). I guess with this they said there’s no more blood to be squeezed from the stone. Even when they started News Tab, Zuckerberg said they were aware it would not get much traffic; it would be used mainly by news whales (as they call us) like you and me; I interpret that as him saying it would be unprofitable. So this may be Zuckerberg facing down the bully and saying: Enough already.

Or, again, it may be an experiment for the rest of the world. Let’s play this out a bit. I am reminded of the ridiculous front pages of Canadian newspapers last week: blank with the message, “you’ll miss us when we’re gone.” (What a statement of entitlement!) Well imagine a world in which Facebook declares the Australian move a success, making for a more pleasant user experience, and they decide to ban links to news throughout the world. [To be clear, they have not threatened that.] Will we miss them when they’re gone? I think we will.

I want to remind readers that Facebook was not started for news. Our readers took news there because we in our field did not provide the mechanisms for them to share it and discuss it with friends outside of awful comments sections. Twitter was not started for news; our readers, as witnesses to news, chose to share it there. Google was not started for news; our industry could not get its act together (see: New Century Network) to provide an overview of the news ecosystem. We could have started Next Door to allow our local readers to meet with neighbors years ago, but Silicon Valley beat us to it. Our readers deserted us because the net provided mechanisms we did not. And we did not because our colleagues in news have been too busy trying to find new ways to pay for old ways instead.

If I sound the grump today, good.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. It seems that the Australian government’s argument — and the argument made by governments in France and Germany, among other countries — is that while publishers have an easy way to not allow Google to index or use their content (the robots.txt file, etc.) they have no choice but to fork over their news because Google’s dominant market position makes it suicide not to do so. But at the same time, its dominance in advertising means the traffic it sends them is worth less and less. A Catch-22 if you will. Any truth to that argument?

Jeff Jarvis: They’re not “forking over their news.” That’s like saying if you take my picture you steal my soul. Publishers are benefitting tremendously from Google and Facebook sending them people — audience, users, potential members or subscribers, consumers, call them what you will. In any rational market, publishers would be paying platforms the way we used to have to pay newsstands. Only Google decided from the first not to sell links in search proper and thus they never created a market value for links. For platforms to do publishers this favor of sending them potential customers, they need to give users a preview with headlines or snippets. We all know that! Indeed, I did research years ago that found the larger the sample, the better the performance of the link; our content is our best ad.

Advertising is indeed going down. We made that bed, too. We in mass media created the attention-based advertising market that the platforms now also use, except they have more data so their ads perform better. I spent years trying to convince news publishers to create means to generate more first-party data with the mechanisms to store, analyze, and use it and I got nowhere because publishers insisted on relying on their old, mass-media ways: plain, old CPM.

And now that publishers are retreating behind paywalls, your argument on their behalf loses some oomph. Google started Subscribe with Google to help them with subscription campaigns, including giving publishers data about best prospects. Sampling is critical — it is the only way — to get subscribers. But now publishers are cutting off their noses to spite their conversion.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks Jeff. You and I both know how difficult things are for media organizations worldwide, including in Australia. Isn’t it better to have a flawed law that compels huge corporations to fund journalism in however roundabout a way, rather than have no one funding them at all?

Jeff Jarvis: Call me a cynic, but this won’t fund journalism. In many cases it will fund hedge fund owners. Have you seen any assurance from the media companies that the money they receive from Google will fund incremental work in reporting and investigation? There is no transparency on the amounts they receive. Will there be any transparency on the use of proceeds?

As you know, my friend, I get hives at the notion of government interference — even if well-intentioned — in speech and particularly in journalism; it’s very American of me. In the Australian case, we have politicians negotiating on behalf of publishers who should be watchdogs with their focus trained on these very officials. We also have big institutions — platforms and government — deciding which news outlets should get money and which should not (see: France).

And I return to the question of entitlement. If countries want to get more tax revenue from companies, should they target a particular industry: the net? If they decide to do that, who is to say that news should be the beneficiary? Why not instead benefit the communities news has harmed, lo many generations? Why not instead fund education or health care or internet access for the poor? Why fund hedgies?

Finally, I fear this money will only delay the inevitable at news companies: that is, death. We have seen that comfort only makes news companies lazy in their ways. Yes, we need to sustain journalism. But entitlement, protectionism, and blackmail are not sustainable models for that future.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. We are just about out of time, so one last question. It’s really easy! I definitely agree with you that news companies have blown a lot of opportunities over the years when it comes to the internet, and publishers have lined their own pockets instead. And I might even agree that the Australian code is a back-door way of funding journalism, when an outright tax would be a fairer approach. But if none of these things were to happen, where would that leave the industry? What happens when tens of thousands of news outlets cease to exist or are so poor they can barely function? How do we solve that problem as a society?

Jeff Jarvis: For years, at Newsgeists and Perugia and other such chummy venues, I have told folks from Facebook, Twitter, and especially Google that rather than their money, I wish they would give us the attention, perspective, experience, and challenge of their best and brightest. I wish we would start not with what news was (God didn’t design the newspaper) but with what society needs: better information, yes, but also ways to connect communities, to make strangers less strange, to debate constructively, to listen to each other, to join in a respectful, informed, and productive public conversation. They consistently demurred and said, “Oh, no, we don’t want to be in the position of telling news companies what to do.” Instead, they gave us Instant Articles and AMP; they worked hard to find homes for what we already did rather than pushing us to rethink and reinvent journalism in a new reality to address society’s problems. They succumbed to the blackmail of our bullies and paid the biggest among us. That is no way to invent our future together.

The big lesson of the last four years and especially the last year for me in my nation is that journalism has failed us. The election of Trump — that that could happen — is evidence against us. The fact that #LivingWhileBlack and #BlackLivesMatter as well as #MeToo were revelatory and not long since reported in mass media is an indictment of us. That the inequity of health in this country in the face of pandemic had not been known and dealt with is our guilty plea. That to get traffic we allow extremists and nuts to set the agenda rather than the needs and lives of everyday Americans is an unforgivable sin. So pardon me but I do not worship at the altar of the pressroom. I want to see us reinvent journalism around old needs and new opportunities. I want to see us collaborate with other fields and disciplines: anthropology to explain communitIes, neuroscience and psychology to explain cognition, ethics and philosopHy to guide us, history and humanities to inform us. I have a long-term vision for journalism. I just fear I am too old to see how this will turn out.

Mathew Ingram: Thanks, Jeff. And thanks again for taking the time to talk about this with us — much appreciated. Interesting times we live in!

Jeff Jarvis: Thanks, Mathew. Always a pleasure.

Whither news?

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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