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Enemy is in retreat: Technology is starting to lose its war on journalism

Facebook's announcement is an admission that the company can't completely replace professional output with user-generated content

Leonid Bershidsky | Bloomberg 

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It seems like only yesterday that faced existential challenges from platforms that helped anyone publish whatever they wanted, took over the distribution of news, and usurped the advertising market with promises of precise targeting. It turns out that the news profession can be quite successful at repelling those challenges. The enemy is in retreat; the news business just needs to be bolder about claiming the spoils.

In the past week, the Huffington Post scaled back its platform for unpaid bloggers and Facebook decided to ask users to rank news sources by trustworthiness. Both represent a clear preference for traditional — in which people get paid for producing stories for good reason. The just-released 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows rising confidence in traditional media: In the 28 countries where the survey was conducted, 59 percent now trust journalism, up from 54 percent a year ago, while trust in social media platforms has declined from 53 percent to 51 percent. Pretty much everywhere in the Western world, professional media are considered to be more reliable sources of information than online platforms.

Facebook’s announcement is an admission that the company can’t completely replace professional output with user-generated content. “News will always be a critical way to start conversations on important topics,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg wrote. But it’s more than that. Facebook is telling users that consuming the product of certain news organisations is better for their well-being than being indiscriminate.

Left scrambling are “social-first” companies, which are cutting staff as they discover that trying to piggyback on the growth of greedy internet giants wasn’t a great bet. At this rate, news outlets could even find themselves asking why they aren’t putting more resources into managing their home pages rather than social media.

Survival is good, but being properly valued is better. Now that tech platforms are realising they have no good replacement for quality journalism, it’s time for them to start paying for it.

Given Zuckerberg’s recognition of the value of news for his company’s stated purpose — connecting people and building communities — that’s a fair suggestion. News publishers should be prepared to fight the republication of their content. It worked for the music industry: Facebook is paying licence fees for music used in home videos. If “trusted” news outlets pressure Facebook, it will pay them, too.

News publishers shouldn’t stop there, though. It’s an aberration that social media and search engines have become top distribution channels for many of them, supplanting their own websites and undermining both advertising and subscription revenues. Because of this, any strategy change by Facebook and Google requires tweaks, sometimes even major changes, to the way content is displayed and packaged.

First Published: Thu, January 25 2018. 22:00 IST
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