Platforms are eating journalism, now what?

A conversation with Emily Bell

It's a lively afternoon in the beautiful Perugia, Italy. We are at the end of the International Journalism Festival 2016, and the Hotel Brufani - the main venue of the festival - is a noisy anthill full of journalists and students buzzing and running around. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has been one of the busiest speakers of the festival, with no less than four sessions, yet she's still found the energy to have a chat with me. 

Emily will be one of the speakers at the upcoming GEN Summit in Vienna, which is set to tackle "The Rise of Platform-Driven News". This theme is also the focus of this interview, following her recent article "Facebook is eating the world" which sparked discussions across the web. 

She explains how the rise of platforms cannot be stopped, and how they have to accept the responsibilities that come with their new role. She also argues that publishers need two strategies: one to reach their audience where they are, and one to make money.  

I'm worried about the things that have

 already gone and haven't been replaced.

Photo Credits: Alessio Jacona/

Did you expect the viral reaction your article "Facebook is eating the world" triggered after its publication? 

Not really, because I've been saying similar things for more than a year. So, at first, I gave a lecture at the Thomson Reuters Foundation almost 18 months ago, and it was meant to be predicting a four to five year future, but it all happened within a year. So, when I did the speech in Cambridge [the article was the text of a lecture Emily gave at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities], it was like an update of everything that I've been thinking and studying in the previous months. 

But in that space of time what happened is that Facebook's influences had really grown. WhatsApp was growing. Facebook was growing. Twitter was fading. Snapchat was kind of forcing Facebook to think more carefully about what it was going to do with video, what it was going to do with Instagram...and so I was much more definite at Cambridge. But I didn't expect that reaction, because I kind of thought that it was obvious.

So now what? What should publishers do? Embrace or stop the rise of platforms?

You can't stop it. What Craig Silverman [editor, Buzzfeed Canada] was hinting at in the panel [Journalism and Silicon Valley, see video below] was interesting. Actually he was pretty explicit about it. It was that you have to have two strategies: you have to have a strategy for distribution, but then sometimes you have to have a different strategy for brand and revenue. Supposing all of your journalism ends up on a social platform, whether it's Facebook or WhatsApp or Telegram or Kik or Snapchat or whatever, that's one strategy for reaching readers wherever they are. Then you have to have a different business model, because I don't think platforms distribution is going to pay for scaled journalism. And I might be wrong about that, BuzzFeed might prove me wrong about that. I think they are the closest to getting it right, but I just don't think there is enough advertising, and subscribers don't want to pay for stories. What if you'd ask the subscribers, "Do you want to pay for the Panama Papers?"

I would pay for the Panama Papers...

You are a journalist, of course, you would pay for them! But if I say to you, "You can read a really amazing story about tax havens and instruments that a foreign Panama-based law firm has come up with", you might say, "How much do you want to charge me?" But if I say, "Give some money to the ICIJ, look at what they've done", I think that's a business model. Not-for-profit is a business model, people give to a journalism organisation because they think they are important and they want them to do good work. 

Transactionally, most journalism is difficult to monetise through subscriptions because most of that information is available elsewhere. Who can make money this way? The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times – because you'd pay for it if it's exclusive.

The New York Times has a million readers pretty much all in New York, and there isn't anything else that addresses that market. There is no other broadsheet paper which addresses that incredibly elite audience in one way. That's why they can charge subscription, but then we need to get outside that.

So there is nothing that editors or publishers can do?

I don't think so. Actually, I think that what we can do is think about how we can cooperate with each other. Journalism is one part of a deep ecosystem of people communicating with each other and sharing information. 

Journalism is like a thread. If you imagine a woven cloth, there is one thread which is journalism. It is completely vital to the integrity of the whole cloth: journalism is a process of verifying information, contextualising it, explaining it; if you don't have those elements within that ecosystem, then what? You can't just have data mining for everyone, random facts. Ten years ago people thought journalism was just going to go away and now nobody thinks so. And in different parts of the world it is even more important than it was before. 

Think about India and China and Africa and South America. There are amazing things happening in journalism in each of those places, sometimes under very difficult conditions. Do Google and Facebook support that kind of work? I think they do. Are they going to pay for it? I think we'll see some more contribution from the platforms than we've seen so far, but I don't think they are going to pay for everybody. We just have to figure that out for ourselves. And we may have to face up to the fact that in certain parts of the world there is not enough journalism and in some parts of the world there is too much. Do you want entertainment news focused on the American market? There is too much of it, it's everywhere. But if you want somebody that can give you a day-by-day account of what’s going on in Syria, that's really hard because reporting is so difficult.

Where does the audience stand in this equation? Do they have any perception of this struggle or do they just get the news and not care?

They don't care. Some colleagues at Columbia recently sat in some focus groups with news consumers in New York City, an audience that defined themselves as news junkies: they would talk about different news brands. What came out is that the things we think are really important, nobody notices. It's really difficult. I think that what Liz Heron said in our panel [Platformed publishing? The evolving relationship between search engines, social media, and news media. See video below] is completely right: "You have to really know what you are, because to project it in a digital world is hard".

I'll give you an example. I didn't see the focus group myself but some colleagues did. So what happens is that BuzzFeed comes up, and everybody dismisses it. Everybody but one woman who says, "They are doing some really good stuff ". And [my colleagues] said that she was just talked over. Nobody had noticed that they are actually doing some of the best journalism around now. As journalists, we notice it all the time, but the public perception is kittens and clickbait.

I'm not really worried about the big brands, I think some of them will disappear and some of them will do well. I'm worried about the things that have already gone and haven't been replaced: the scaled effects of the internet have destroyed local journalism and in America nobody's been able to really get a for-profit model that works in that environment anymore.

Local news in the US is a really interesting experiment: here is a scenario where legacy journalism has disappeared but where we need reporting, and here is a platform where local communities are already online and using those tools. So can that collaboration between new journalistic organisations, distribution platforms and local targeting actually replace what has gone? My guess is not very optimistic, I think it will still be that we can't pay for this stuff with advertising or subscription and that we need some kind of substitute from somewhere else.

We went from the digital first to mobile first, are we now going to social first?

Well, social media and mobile are the same thing. The reason why social media has become so dominant, is really because of mobile phones. The number of people who use news apps specifically is very low compared to the number of people who use social apps which is very high. So the mobile web is really the mobile social web. And that's a huge change. 

One thing I've said is that I think publishing has changed more in the past five years than it has in the past five hundred. The shift from newspapers to websites is in and of itself not a very incremental change: you're publishing the same things just more frequently in a different environment. What has changed now is everybody's ability to publish and contribute and change and share.

In your panel at the IJF, Madhav Chinappa said that the power has shifted and it is now in the hands of users. Do you agree with that?

No. Each of the big companies says "we just follow what the user does". And that's true to a certain extent but the underlying principle of their design is predetermined. They are all sold with an idea: Facebook's core idea was sharing photos and then making money on the advertising around it. Google's core idea was to organise information, search it without going through some sort of browser-based URL thing, and then understand how they can monetise that through advertising. And obviously they will also listen to how users play within that system, but they design products for repetitive behaviour to suit their commercial agenda. They see individuals as consumers. I'm not saying this is wrong – it is just what happens in the market economy, but they don't necessarily see them as citizens.

The big dilemma in all of this is that there is a civic purpose to journalism and there is a commercial purpose and sometimes these two things are not compatible. And the same is true for platforms. They have a civic function and they have a commercial function and right now the commercial function is prevailing, most of the time, not all the time.

Well, they are businesses...

They are, but they now have, possibly accidentally, civic responsibilities. This is the thing that's happened which they haven't genuinely wanted. Mark Zuckerberg does not want to be a publisher. He doesn't want to but he has become one just by designing his platform. He didn’t anticipate this; none of his product managers saw it through: they didn't imagine that they would be involved in debates about morality or ethics or transparency or whether people live or die. They didn't imagine that people would post things on their platforms, in places like Bangladesh, which resulted in them being beaten to death in the street. That is not what they've designed their platform for, but that's the responsibility they've created. 

As journalists we know how that story goes, because this is our profession, but if you are an engineer working on one of these products, how could you know that? It’s unlikely that someone who is young and in an educational elite and then in a corporate elite will think about those things. 

The people who are leading some of the companies involved in this are not corrupt personas who have put in lots of money so that they can put their own vested interests in front of people. They are engaged, energetic, civically-minded individuals who want to change the world in a way that is beneficial to all. But they are also billionaires with shareholders and staff who all want money. And actually their priority is in their business, and it’s not always gonna be journalistic. So that's why I think we have to engage, because I don't think this is only about saving journalism. I think it is about making the new system journalistic, if that makes sense.

Making them accept the responsibilities they have now and make them publishers "for real"?

Yes, make them publishers for real. I would love Mark Zuckerberg to say, "I'm a publisher". Because I think we need rich, powerful, civically-minded individuals with the technological capability to think about the hardest problems that we encounter when we are trying to report the world. And to have Mark Zuckerberg say, "I only want to see the work of journalism when it's done and when I can sell it"isn't very helpful. I do think that if we don't have some kind of acknowledgement that they've got a responsibility now towards their users as citizens as well as consumers, then we are in trouble.

Do you think that they will accept these responsibilities, become publishers, and therefore hire journalists and care about the way reporting is done?

They might never hire journalists, I said that it would be interesting if they do hire journalists...they always say, "we are not actually going to create the journalism ourselves". But, in a way they already do that and some people they employ to curate things are journalists. What they are not doing is paying the full publishing cost of reporting, but they do everything else. They are doing every other bit really in a way of journalism apart from reporting.

I would love for Mark Zuckerberg to say, 
"I'm a publisher". Because I think we need rich, 
powerful, civically minded individuals with 
the technological capability to think about 
the hardest problems that we encounter when 
we are trying to report the world.
– Emily Bell
Photo Credits: Alessio Jacona/Flickr

And what about the stories that might not be the most interesting for their audience but that need to be reported? Won’t those topics be covered less and less?

I'm not sure about that. One of the effects of wealth inequality is the fact that there are some very rich people who, a bit like in the 19th century, have started to put money into journalism. Because you can make money, but can you really have power or influence? Until you have a point of view or perspective, you are kind of exercising an economic power but you are not exercising cultural influence. And cultural influence is a very powerful, heady drug once you've started taking it.

I've been watching Mark Zuckerberg who I think does have a slightly different world view: he is not an engineer by background, he was a psychology [and computer science] major at Harvard before dropping out, and he has started to say the kind of things that a public figure would say. He has started to say, "I want my daughter to have equal pay", "I'm going to learn to speak Chinese", "We won't tolerate hate speech". He is being very political. And there is a difference between that and being utterly neutral, and saying: "We just see our platform as a money machine, I don't want to engage, I don't want people to know what my views are, it's irrelevant".

I don’t think the companies are saying, "yesterday we were this kind of company, tomorrow we are a different kind of company", but the transition is clear. They didn't want that responsibility but they've been given it and now they're starting to think about it and be responsible for much more than they had initially anticipated. They are starting to say that they will or won't take ISIS material off of their platforms, or they won't break encryption. They are saying that they think there is a free speech argument for this kind of content but not for that kind of content, etc. That's a big change.

But we can't go to these companies and say, "Don't make profit", right?

I think something interesting is happening. It has become a brand issue. Uber's biggest problem for a while was that people didn't like what they heard about its brand values. Amazon had to do a certain amount of counter PR around employment. If you think about pre-WWII, nobody would have known or talked about social values of a company, and now it is the first thing you think about, and brand identities are constructed around that.

I would be so fascinated to find out if any technology organisation, Google or Facebook or Twitter, gives money to something like the ICIJ or the Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ). Imagine how their work would be transformed by a close relationship with platforms. But platforms can't have a close relationship with CPJ if they are going to hand the details of journalists to authorities or if they are going to shut down services when governments ask them to. It's a progression, and I think that the social platforms will increasingly move in the same direction as publishing houses, which is acknowledging some civic responsibilities, but sometimes we need to push them a bit.

In three words, what can we expect for the news industry in the near future?

"Lots more changes", those are my three words. Beyond that, we are a technology field now. That's the other thing: this is not just a one-way street. Journalism is about communicating with people as quickly as possible when something happens – to inform them in the most complete way possible about the world. That's what journalism is, that's what it has always done. It breaks news, delivers context, connects people. And now it's happening in real time, and it's happening because technology and user behaviour changes all the time. People say news organisations should function more like tech companies. I'd say it's more like being a journalism company and acknowledging that all your processes are the same processes as a tech company – which means everything changes all the time.

Emily Bell will speak at the sixth annual GEN Summit in Vienna, Austria next 17 June, how Third Party Platforms are Swallowing Journalism. Book your tickets here.

Cover Photo Credits: PROmkhmarketing/Flickr