One of the single biggest defining issues for journalism over the next few years is the evolving — and uneasy — relationship between social media platforms and newsrooms.
It’s a complicated issue. We have reached a point where “news spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers,” in the memorable phrase of Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at Columbia. Instead, that space is to a great extent controlled by social media. From Facebook to Instagram, they feed us what we read and see every day. To do that, they have developed extraordinarily effective and efficient methods of distributing information to their readers and viewers.
Newsrooms realize there are good reasons to partner. They increasingly look to social media and other publishing platforms for new audiences and revenue streams. It benefits social as well. The platforms like the steady stream of professional content produced by newsrooms.
But it is an uneasy pairing — the budding relationship is not between equals. Social media are enjoying explosive growth. Newsrooms are struggling with a loss of influence and profitability. The two have vastly different cultures and goals. (ie: Muckraking vs keeping stockholders happy.)
Journalists see high risks. They worry that a growing dependence on platforms they don’t control could lead to a loss of editorial independence.
There are no easy answers here. Are you confused about what’s happening? Why it matters, to journalists and readers? Or even if you are wondering, “What the heck is a platform?” — you are not alone. Here’s a Q&A to help you out.
What the heck is a ‘platform’?
Its definition varies, but for this, I’m defining it this way: Platforms are sites that publish and distribute user-generated content. Content ranges from text to pictures, from video to interactives. It includes links to outside sources, such as news sites.
Many platforms are social — Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, for instance. But there are others that publish without necessarily having a strong social connection, such as Medium (although some recent tweaks seem aimed at making it much more social).
I didn’t even know news organizations had ‘platforms’. What’s up with that?
For hundreds of years, news publishers have had news “platforms,” although that term was rarely used. Newsrooms own printing presses, which allow them to print and distribute thousands of copies of papers, informing and influencing people everywhere in their geographic zone. That’s their platform. The high cost of entry into the business — printing presses are hugely expensive — meant limited competition and the availability of only a relatively few press platforms.
What are the major platforms today?
The big publishers today are social media platforms; they are their own “printing presses,” every day producing barrels of digital content. They reach millions, without a drop of ink in sight. Among them are Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Medium. You could add in a bunch more, too. And news organizations are great at producing content. That’s their job. So many platforms are eager to work with news sites. Adding quality, professional content to their sites upgrades them.
Why do news sites want to publish on social? Why not keep the news on their own sites?
In a word: Distribution. News companies always had great distribution networks, (for newspapers) set up around hawkers, corner stores, and home delivery, or (for TV) broadcast systems. News was inexpensively delivered to people across the country.
Then the world changed. Old-line news sites forgot that way back when, it took creativity and hard work to set up those distribution networks. After awhile, they took them for granted, and the skills used to create those networks atrophied. Meanwhile, social media and other platforms created their own networks, blasting past newsrooms in making efficient and effective systems for distributing information to their readers and viewers. When a person on Facebook shares a link about a news story on Obama, the FB algorithm sends it off to a broad network of friends and acquaintances who might be interested. It works, and it works well.
News organizations? Their delivery trucks are stuck in first gear. They struggle to get the word out to their readers, through email, Twitter, and a Facebook page. It’s not enough and they know it. That leaves news organizations increasingly looking toward social platforms as a way of reaching new readers and viewers through deeper partnerships. Some are paying social sites to promote their content.
It’s a wrenching change for old-line media companies. Their distribution channels enabled them to become powerful, influential players. That influence is ebbing and they are being forced to adapt, fast and with diminishing resources.
BTW, this doesn’t just affect the traditional print publishers. The new digital news sites — Vox, BuzzFeed, and the rest — are effected as well. They too are puzzling out the best ways to deal with social media.
Why does social media have so much influence compared with news sites?
Because that’s where the people are. Facebook alone has 1.4 billion users. On one recent day, a billion people used the service. A billion. And people spend staggering amounts of time on social sites. News sites are being forced to embrace social, if not as partners, than at some level. If they don’t, they lose a potentially massive audience. Plus, social sites offer intriguing possibilities. Many of their users do not visit news sites, or not often. Publishing on these sites gives news a chance to reach a new audience.
People join and stay with those sites for a reason: Content. They are interested in reading and viewing what’s on those sites, and that content happens to be generated by themselves. Bell notes that “news space is no longer controlled by newsmakers,” meaning the professionals. That’s true, to some extent. But who are the newsmakers today? They are the users, and they are creating “news” nonstop. User-generated content fills media platforms. It ranges from the light and fluffy to serious. It’s news about birthdays, weddings, deaths of pets and family members, and art projects. Sometimes its links to news stories, with insightful political comments. So it’s not “News” by professionals. But it’s “news” that interest people, sometimes only one or two, sometimes thousands.
What can newsrooms do?
Well, one option is to ignore social. Another is to partner or use social, on at least some level. Newsrooms are getting that chance. Social sites are taking what for them is the obvious step — inviting newsrooms to publish directly to them, before they publish to their own sites.
But that’s difficult for some newsrooms to accept, whether they are mainstream or digital. It’s almost like they are being asked to turn over their printing presses to someone else. And that could be dangerous.
On the other hand, newsrooms need to embrace social, in some way. Their growth is too explosive to ignore, compared with most news sites. Connecting with social gives newsrooms a chance to meet with huge groups of readers who are divorced from news sites and who increasingly live on social.
A top editor at Vox told me that its videos on YouTube reach people who normally never visited Vox. That benefits news organizations, which have a far more limited reach through their own news sites. That’s why Ev Williams, a founder of Medium, argues that the value of the site is far more about the network it provides, and less about the (excellent) platform it is for publishing.
Partnering also raises questions from the philosophical to the practical. Can newsrooms and social create partnerships that benefit both sides? What happens when the goals of social organizations conflict with the goals of newsrooms? How can newsrooms make money in this arrangement and how secure is the deal?
It’s clear that newsrooms need social and social needs news (kinda). Newsrooms need the platforms to expand their readership. Platforms see newsrooms as a way of getting a steady stream of interesting, professional content.
What steps should newsrooms take?
Most see they need to work with social at some level. And there is a big upside. But there are those major “buts.”
Jeff Jarvis, a prominent media critic, says it’s obvious media companies have to engage. “To ignore the platforms and their people, to continue to believe that we can make a business by demanding that everyone come to us is delusion,” wrote the CUNY professor, who directs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.
Furthermore, he argues, news companies need to see this as an opportunity. Facebook and Google are eager to join in partnerships with news companies because they see the value. The time to do this is now. “We need to build bridges or we will be left as islands,” says Jarvis.
One leader in adapting to social is BuzzFeed. It is aggressively publishing content to whatever platform it thinks will find a strong audience.
Jonah Peretti, co-founder of BuzzFeed, discussed the strategy at SXSW earlier this year. “For us, it increasingly doesn’t matter where our content lives,” he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “That can actually be a huge advantage.” The numbers reflect how much content is consumed on social. BuzzFeed’s traffic in January (shortly before the interview) was impressive: 420 million views from Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.
A year ago, the company announced it was creating a separate team, BuzzFeed Distributed, which “will make original content solely for platforms like Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and messaging apps.”
BuzzFeed has an enormous advantage dealing with the Facebooks of the world — its size. It brings in a huge audience, the kind of numbers that social media appreciate.
Unfortunately, local media does not have that kind of leverage. As pointed out in a recent NiemanLab story, “As giant platforms rise, local news is getting crushed.”
What’s this Instant Articles thing by Facebook, and what’s the big deal?
Facebook’s Instant Articles are a prime example of how publishing is changing. Facebook and other social media such as Snapchat are getting into news in a much more active way. Before, they passively passed along links. Now, seeking to expand their own networks, they are cutting deals with newsrooms to publish directly on their sites. Facebook has signed up a broad range of publishers, such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, and BuzzFeed, enticing them with attractive advertising deals. These deals could give them new streams of revenue, at a time when they are financially desperate, and a more focused way of reaching out Facebook’s billion-plus users. They hope it will gain them more readers, especially on mobile. And Facebook isn’t the only platform doing this. Snapchat has launched Discover.
BTW, others are inviting media companies to join hands, as well. Apple this fall is releasing its “News” app with iOS 9. It has 50 publishers signed up. Publishers put full stories on the app and share in ad revenue.
New audiences, new revenue. That sounds good. So what’s the problem for newsrooms?
The problem is that newsrooms are realizing they they have lost control of distribution. More and more, social controls who sees news. Also, with programs such as Instant Articles, readers stay on Facebook when they read a news site’s stories, and are not linked back to the news site.
Social media are becoming the new news publishers, and that’s raising lots of interesting, but difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions.
Publishers are OK with using Facebook and the rest as a means of driving traffic back to their sites. But publishing stories and videos direct to FB? That’s a different story. Publishing directly to Facebook helps Facebook. How does it help the news site? Hmmm. As Josh Benton of Nieman notes, it’s almost as if “The Seattle Times hired 20 reporters whose only job was to write stories for The Miami Herald.” Newsrooms need to see good reasons for them to publish directly to platforms.
It’s also not clear how much direct publishing to social media will help newsrooms. As media critic Dan Kennedy notes: “If I click on something on Facebook, it’s likely because a friend I trust not to waste my time shared it with me. Is direct publishing onto Facebook going to be as enticing? I don’t know.”
They also lose control of the interface — how people see and interact with their product.
What worries publishers about partnering with platforms?
Only mostly everything:
- What if the deal changes?: Facebook’s Instant Articles offer a tremendous revenue opportunity for publishers. But what happens if — when — Facebook changes the rules further down the line, when news publishers are more dependent on the social media giant? Will new rules hurt revenue? No one knows, and that’s terrible uncertainty when one platform controls the revenue tap like that. Will news publishers have leverage to demand better terms, or will they be forced to accept the tidbits FB throws at them?
- Data: Social gets all that lovely data about who the news site’s users are, which they could collect if the readers visited the news site. News companies don’t have access to that data, which they could use for everything from increasing readership to targeted ads.
- Will social sites respect journalistic values?: Journalists write about uncomfortable truths and protect anonymous sources who tell difficult stories. They think of themselves as having a responsibility for telling the truth. What are social sites about? Responsibility to shareholders. Will social sites back news organizations, if the social site comes under corporate or government pressure to kill a particular story? Stay tuned.
- Transparency: Publishers worry about those much-reviled Facebook algorithms. Who understands how what is delivered to people’s newsfeeds? Certainly publishers don’t. And Facebook (understandably) is loathe to give up the recipe for the secret sauce. That frustrates news publishers who are left wondering if posted news items are reaching their readers, and what are at the best ways to reach them.
- Different sites, different work: Publishing to many different social sites, each with wildly different missions and formats, is a time-sucking headache. News publishers have to be smart and focused about picking which social platforms are the most efficient for them.
- Less innovation: Innovation has exploded among some news organizations. The New York Times and The Guardian have earned well-deserved reputations for taking advantage of the web’s capabilities. News sites have experimented with “atomizing” stories — breaking them into component pieces and reassembling them in new and creative ways. But some argue that if news organizations have to publish to many different platforms, that forces them to create technically simpler, less sophisticated. Time to innovate is lost.
So is the news media doomed?
Not a chance. (And neither is the Front Page, at least not yet, despite my somewhat hyperbolic headline. Despite a clearly changing landscape, font pages are still popular entry points. Sorry.) But there will be major changes in how newsrooms work with social and other platforms. There will be tough negotiations between journalists, who are more about truth and less about profit, and social sites, with responsibilities to shareholders. Expect some explosions.
And newsrooms need to adjust to a new reality: They are far less influential than they were even a few years ago. Bell says the news media is “a much smaller part of a bigger ecosystem”.
Where do all these changes leave newsrooms?
One view is that newsrooms will continue to do what they do best — create news content — and turn distribution over to outside platforms. In other words, newsrooms would write stories and make videos, and give up their delivery trucks.
That’s an outlier viewpoint. But newsrooms need to come to terms with social. They are losing the platform war. Social holds a ton of leverage. They have the audience and the deep pockets. Some news organizations — like The New York Times and BuzzFeed — have the quality content, reputation, and large enough audiences so they can strike advantageous deals with the big platforms. Others have much weaker hands.
Where does this leave us? In a rapidly evolving landscape, where newsrooms are trying to keep their feet as they dance with social media. No resolutions yet. Stay tuned.
Matt Carroll (@MattatMIT) runs the Future of News initiative, funded by the Knight Foundation, at the MIT Media Lab. His other work can be found here.
This post originally appeared on Medium.