Future Platforms for Independent Journalism: A New Report

Earl Lane

The future of independent journalism, and whether newspapers will ever be able to peacefully co-exist with digital platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, is the subject of a new report from the Norway-based Tinius Trust.

The Trust controls a majority of shares of the Schibsted Media Group, a publisher of leading newspapers in Norway and Sweden that has operations in 30 countries.  The Trust issues an Annual Report assessing challenges for the media industry.

The new report, “Future Platforms for Independent Journalism,” features essays by journalists and technology specialists who grapple with the implications of the recent efforts to bring more and more newspaper content to Facebook and other distributed platforms.

That trend poses new challenges for legacy news outlets that have been scrambling for more than a decade to keep up with a changing media landscape.

As Emily Bell, founding director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, writes in the report: “Over the past twelve months, technology companies have offered strong incentives to individual publishers to create much more journalism on their platforms than ever before, with Snapchat ‘Discover’ Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, and Twitter ‘Moments.’

She adds: “The time has passed when publishing could claim to draw strength from its independence. Using distributed platforms is seen by some as being the ultimate Faustian pact — independence traded for a chance at survival.”

Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief the The Guardian, notes that digital natives such as Buzzfeed, Vox and Fusion have “built their presence by working within new distribution systems, not against them.”

Newspapers with an eye to their future surely must follow suit, he says, but at their own risk. “Newspapers lose control of distribution,” Rusbridger writes. “They don’t have any influence over the algorithms which reveal, or downplay, their content.”

That loss of control is a serious concern, Bell says. “The dilemma of how to make money in a market which is no longer under your control continues to be the primary survival challenge for news.”  And the larger issue, she says, is the survival of journalism as a robust participant in a democratic society.

“Dealing with the complexities of setting new norms and standards, preserving archives for civic and democratic purposes, and allowing journalists, publishers and the public to know why certain items are removed or censored — these are all pressing issues in this new relationship between platforms and those who seek to publish through them,” Bell writes.

Frode Eilertsen, executive vice president of the Schibsted Media Group, notes that “Facebook may soon become the newspaper of choice for most people in most markets — all without contributing to the production of a single piece of content or acknowledging editorial accountability.”   Platform giants such as Facebook are not focused on innovation in journalism per se, he says, “and since they already control the interface to the users, they effectively make it impossible for publishers to innovate around news services.”

Eilertsen warns that “a few global platforms from the U.S. and China taking control of the creation, economics and consumption of news will be bad for innovation, journalism, readers, and, ultimately, society.”

To prevent that, he argues, legacy media companies must develop their own “logged-in ecosystems,” platforms with the same attention to audience engagement and analytics as a Facebook or a Google. But such a media-built platform “would have publishing as an inherent part of its DNA, and would have a sensitivity to issues like freedom of the press and censorship that are sometimes lacking in the tech industry,” Eilertsen writes.

Adam Kinney, Shibsted’s vice president of data and analytics and formerly head of analytics at Twitter, argues that that media companies should join forces to build new platforms for news distribution.

“The participating media companies would provide the content, the user data needed to power insights, and the ad inventory.” Kinney writes. “The platform would provide the right metrics, the personalization algorithms, and the ad targeting. Each media company would still run their own destination site and app, but the sorting of the content and ads displayed would be determined by the platform.”

One media company could even share content with other companies through the platform to enable what Kinney calls “a super-personalization that drives engagement higher than would be possible with a single publication on its own” and with revenue-sharing arrangements to compensate the content creators.

How can the legacy players adapt to the new realities while maintaining editorial independence?

Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York, says journalists themselves must continue to adapt to the new realities and could learn a few tricks from the new kids on the block. The notion of mass media, which deliver one-size-fits-all products, is becoming obsolete, Jarvis argues. Journalists must find ways to identify communities that are self-defined and underserved (the retired, small-business owners, ethnic diasporas, parents of small children, and many others) and serve them better.

And news organizations must find ways to sell advertisers something of greater value, Jarvis says. “Consider that BuzzFeed doesn’t really sell media space and time as legacy companies do,” he writes. “BuzzFeed sells a skill:  ‘We know how to make our stuff viral so we can make your stuff viral, too.’ Vice, similarly, sells its talent at making stuff cool. News organizations should demonstrate that they know how to serve communities with trust and relevance — and then offer that skill to other companies that wish to do that themselves.”