Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
Like guilty lovers who keep buying their battered spouses $89.95 tennis bracelets to make up, Facebook and Google/YouTube keep rolling out little presents for the journalism industry. You remember journalism, that once-proud industry whose countless stories and videos helped build Facebook and Google, even as the digital giants have helped break it.
The latest trinkets include a $14 million fund to support research in news “integrity” and literacy, and a YouTube decision to block ad monetization for new video channels until they’ve reached the modest barrier of 10,000 views. Both are responses to the last election cycle’s fake-news controversies and more recently an advertiser boycott over placement of brands (and their cash) next to the video of Extremists Doing Vile Things.
Other Facebook and Google initiatives of recent times also include the Facebook Journalism Project, which promises to develop new business models and “products,” improve news literacy and create better fact-checking systems for readers trying to assess the information they read.
Google also launched its own fact-checking initiative, partnering with some of the same respected third-party specialists to flag and help quash fake news memes.
These have all been nice enough initiatives, I suppose. The journalism business, and thoughtful people who want to understand the world, will welcome any assistance they can get to wade through the thickets of this new world, especially if it comes from companies getting rich off both.
But will any of these initiatives do much to help a bruised and beat-up business get through the long night? I doubt it.
These are palliative nostrums prescribed by the very companies making so much from other people’s content. The worse offender, perhaps, is Facebook, which has shared only a pittance of its vast revenues with publishers, and then only for its live-streaming initiative.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s Instant Articles mobile initiative, one of its already tarnishing tennis bracelets for publishers, is proving to be worth less than even the usual $89.95. The New York Times left the two-year-old program late in 2016, and Forbes, Quartz, Hearst and others have also moved on, Digiday reports. One thing Instant Articles didn’t do: produce instant profits to go with all those instant audience members.
Of course, Facebook created the fast-loading technologies to keep people on its site longer, not to directly make more money for publishers. That’s how it and Google operate: create more reasons to keep coming back, and leverage the technology to make that all happen.
Journalists face plenty of other challenges, of course, like the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission crackdown this week on about 30 writers and business news sites that ran dozens of stories touting the stock prospects for various firms. The writers were allegedly unpaid, but in fact were getting payments from the tout-ees in their stories. I’m actually slightly sympathetic toward the touts, given the dubious economic circumstances that likely led to their problematic endeavors. But you have to be really indifferent to appearances, and basic fraud law, to draw these kinds of penalties from an otherwise somnolent SEC. Now, it’s time for a little Cleanup on Journalism’s Aisle 5.
But thankfully, there are also some glimmers of hope out there for journalism.
That Facebook project on journalism integrity will include a collaboration with CUNY, and contributions from other tech firms, including Mozilla, AppNexus, Betaworks, and the Craig Newmark Foundation. It seems appropriate that the list of funders includes the founder of Craig’s List, whose free listings helped destroy billions of dollars of value in the newspaper classified-ad sector.
And some news organizations, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have smartly used the moment to get (a lot) more subscribers, even as they experiment with new kinds of content and paid services. More people seem to be aware of the value of legitimate news sources, and even will pay for it, though a distressingly large slice of the electorate continues drinking the KooKoo Kool-Aid served daily in a paranoid (Alex) Jonestown.
I’m rooting for the success of the Times and Post, and all the other digital and traditional publishers in this new paradigm. I say this even as I acknowledge that the Post’s savior is Jeff Bezos, a guy whose Amazon is positioned to wallop Hollywood, most of retail and possibly even sectors such as telecom, even as he figures out ways to make the Post a going concern.
One real solution might be actually prising loose some of Facebook’s billions to pay the creators who make it a place to come regularly for its 1.7 billion visitors. I’m not holding my breath for that one.
In the meantime, Facebook and Google have sprinkled some costume jewelry around the battered journalism business after making a hash of it and our broader culture and society. Wake me up when the digital giants accept a larger responsibility for the world they’re creating.