What role do Google and Facebook play in the future of journalism?

For some years now, some of the main technology platforms have shown a special interest in news generated by the newspaper industry and in attracting more users through it. In the heat of era of debate on the effects of the information distributed through social networks, the phenomenon of the post-truth, the fake news and the clickbait , the necessity arises to raise the role that Google and Facebook play in the future of journalism, what what they are doing to get closer and promote content publishing and what position should be taken before it by the media and journalists.


JOSÉ ANTONIO GONZÁLEZ ALBA *

There are many factors that have motivated the industry to remain in the crisis situation that it has been going through for more than ten years, with the consequent crisis of credibility, brand and business model that the media suffer. And one of those factors has been the null concern of publishers to know their main asset, readers.

With the appearance of the first websites, free content began to be offered. In recent years, with social networks and mobile devices, news publishers have launched themselves directly to deliver the distribution of news to these large platforms, betting on the power of taking our content anywhere in the world to that this would give them more visits, more users, more advertising revenue. However, what has been achieved is to completely modify the consumption patterns of users, who now inform themselves and access the news more through networks and platforms than through media websites, these completely losing control of the distribution of the product they offer. In this loss of intermediation between the facts and the readers, Media news reaches our Facebook or Twitter account intermingled with multiple impacts, opinions, entertainment, comments from our friends or directly false profiles and informative links. The complication for the reader when it comes to giving truthfulness to a content grows, and the credibility and brand recall for the publishers becomes a problem of, for now, a difficult solution.

The media have completely lost control of the distribution of their products

The new teams specialized in studies of audiences and engagement (commitment, identification) of the media show the error of the industry in not having bet more from the first moment to know those who were on the other side accepting and at the same time controlling our work, the readers.

The problem is that it seems that the media arrive at this moment of the game too late. The main asset of large technology platforms is the exhaustive knowledge they have of each of us. Our data is the merchandise that we give in exchange for occupying our time and attention in the multiple offers of leisure, entertainment and practical utilities that they offer us for free.

Control of advertising
Advertising remains, in general terms and with few exceptions, the main economic income of the media industry. But Google and Facebook, which manage the data of millions of users, control the large advertising market thanks to them.

Google billed a total of $ 90.2 billion in 2016, while Facebook reached $ 27.6 billion. Added, about 108,000 million euros, to the change, which represents 8% more than the sum of the 25 largest communication groups in Europe , among which are Bertelsmann, Vivendi, Mediaset, Prisa and Schibsted.

In Spain, in 2015 they added advertising revenue of 850 million euros from the 1,300 that the online sector billed , according to figures from IAB Spain and Infoadex. In 2016, of the 1,526 million investment, they kept more than 70%. And in the international arena, in the past year they controlled 60% of online advertising contracted by companies and advertisers, according to data from the consulting firm eMarketer . That is, taking into account the Spanish example, there are just over 400 million euros that directly affect the entire digital universe, which includes traditional, native media, blogs, televisions, radios, etc.

Another example is worth understanding the magnitude of these two corporations: according to a study by Nielsen, the eight most used and best-rated mobile applications in 2016, including Messenger, YouTube, Gmail, Instagram …, are all owned by Google and Facebook .

The relationship between media and platforms
But what is Facebook? A social network? A technology giant? Its value proposition is simple: create community and connect people, and for that purpose, it aims to ensure that everything a user can do through current multi-screen consumption is done within their platform. However, there are voices that consider the technology company as the largest means of communication in the world.

In the words of professor and innovation expert Enrique Dans , the idea of ​​Facebook is consolidated as a “media company, different from the traditional ones, dedicated to a platform work, whose purpose would be to promote the production of content”.

For this reason, faced with the reasoning of “I am only a platform and what moves on it is not my problem” (in relation to the proliferation of false news), it increases the vision that would lead the Zuckerberg company to take responsibility, to educate journalists and develop fact-checking systems that allow users to know what to expect when accessing their content, according to Dans.

Pablo Boczkowski , professor and media researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, also thinks that the social network is one of the main actors in the publishing industry, since “the decisions made by its algorithms and its content curators affect quality. and the amount of information that 1.7 billion people receive in the world, so its influence is, I dare say, greater than all the media companies combined. ”

This professor talks about the concept of “incidental news”, as a result of a study on information consumption in people between 18 and 29 years old, which demonstrated the trend that reading news is no longer an activity in itself, but one more part of the life of young people on social networks. For this reason, the user does not go in search of information, but it comes to him “while reviewing messages from friends, family photos, cooking recipes or pet memes”.

There are also some voices critical of the power of Facebook regarding the media industry. Journalist and media executive Steven Waldman, in an article in The New York Times, highlights how “the increase in consumption of mobile news fueled by smartphones has ended up hurting news organizations, facilitating the emergence of social networks as the main platform for news distribution.” For this reason, it proposes a “philanthropic commitment” of these great technological platforms to save journalism. “The commitment they have made to training and innovation for the media is fundamental, but what journalism needs most now is money to finance journalists, and what these companies have given so far is very little in relation to what rich they are ”, he assures. According to Waldman, Facebook and Google are among the greatest beneficiaries of digital disruption, one of the causes of the crisis in journalism,

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, criticizes the lack of transparency in the operation of Facebook’s algorithmsSo if the network decides that live stories will work better than text stories, we won’t be able to find out unless they say so. “We need regulation to ensure that all citizens get the same access to the networks of opportunities and services they need,” he clarifies. In this sense, it even predicts the temptation of publishers to go one hundred percent to distributed platforms, starting to create stories that work on the social network, thus abandoning the maintenance of their websites in favor of this hyperdistribution, so the The distinction between platforms and publishers will disappear entirely. “It is a very high risk strategy, since you lose control of the relationship with readers, their income and even the route that stories take to reach their destination,” he concludes.

Precisely, the Tow Center carried out an investigation to evaluate the adaptation of newsrooms to the growing influence of technology companies. And among the results obtained, it stands out how publishers are experiencing a distribution change “faster than expected” towards platforms, the concern of the editors for the loss of control over the fate of the stories and for the power that their brand loses. , as well as that media professionals lacked the necessary resources to create the level of innovation and access to new audiences offered by social networks and platforms.

The study analyzed 14 major US media ( The New York Times , The Washington Post , Vice , BuzzFeed, Fox News and Vox, among others) and 23 different social distribution platforms. The Post published its news in 22 of the 23; CNN, at 21, and the Times , at 20. All the analyzed media also distributed their news through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Apple News.

For his part, technology expert and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York, Jeff Jarvis, believes that what the media needs from the distribution giants is not traffic, but information that could help the media to make better recommendations to your users.

With Google, the great world search engine, the situation is similar . Similarly, it controls users through a series of free practical applications – email account, task organization, video channel, social network, blog, locator and maps, documents in the cloud … – in exchange for all our data.

Facebook and Google need quality news content and journalists

However, the main problem faced by both Facebook and Google is that, as they do not yet act as media, they do not have the mechanisms to produce relevant and quality information content or professionals to do it. Until now, they served as distribution platforms for our news. Now, with the growing interest in news content, they have focused on making the necessary tools available to the media so that, in addition to distributing them, journalists can produce, edit and market them more efficiently. Because Facebook and Google also want us, as users, to use their platforms in the less and less autonomous task of informing ourselves.

In the interests of both of them in promoting the use of technology, the commitment of these platforms in recent years to support quality media content through programs, competitions and aid for innovation and digital transformation is born. The Trump phenomenon, fake news , the concept of “post-truth” and the effects that all this caused by acting as mere platforms have fostered the giants’ concern to support the media, placing themselves on the side of the fight against disinformation, rumor mill, fake news and clickbait (bait or misleading headlines in search of the easy click, in order to earn advertising revenue).

Image from ISOJ 2017 in which you can see Google and Facebook as main sponsors of the event

In fact, the commitment that Facebook and Google make to finance and sponsor some of the most important meetings for debate and reflection on the journalistic profession that are held internationally is already commonplace. Recent examples such as the World Congress of the International News Media Association (INMA World Congress), in New York, and the International Symposium on Digital Journalism (ISOJ) of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, of the University of Texas, in Austin, they are proof of that.

Google tools To
support the industry through technology and innovation and to foster collaboration between publishers and the technology platform, Google launched the Digital News Initiative (DNI) program for European publishing groups, with three main areas of attention: product development, research and training and the DNI Innovation Fund, with a commitment to finance € 150 million to support innovation in the newspaper industry.

Google Innovation Fund: more than 73 million euros in journalistic projects

Since its launch in 2016, the Google Innovation Fund team has evaluated more than 3,000 applications for journalistic projects, has carried out almost 750 interviews and has financed, in the three rounds of calls held, more than 73 million euros of funding for 359 proposals from 29 European countries. The winners of the fourth round, open until October 12, were announced in mid-December 2017. Of the total number of projects approved to date, 26 are Spanish, including works by El País , El Confidencial, Eldiario.es, La Voz de Galicia and startups [emerging companies] such as Politibot, Cuonda Podcast and Newskid, among others .

Google has also set up its own journalistic innovation laboratory, the Google News Lab , “a space for collaboration with journalists and entrepreneurs to build the future of the media.” Since it was launched in Spain in October 2015, several thousand journalists have already been trained in the use and journalistic treatment with which to use the platform’s tools, through agreements and programs carried out with different journalistic centers and associations.

Similarly, they have launched the YouTube Player tool as a video platform for press editors, a specific product for the media that helps increase the reach of news. A project in which several European communication groups participated, such as Prisa, Unidad Editorial, France24 and The Guardian , and which aims to allow newsrooms to dedicate themselves more efficiently to creating creative content.

This new tool enables the media to store videos, stream streaming [live], manage rights and user analytics, features that make it possible to better connect with audiences, increasing control over content and simplifying the task of using the platform.

With an eye on mobile devices, the time in which content is downloaded has become a fundamental factor for readers. That a page is slow to visualize is one of the most negative notes in the experience of a mobile user, and a missed opportunity for editors when caring for these potential readers. For this, Google launched, together with more than 30 major international media, the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP) , a universal open source format (available to any developer who wants to exploit it) to improve the performance of the websites of the media on mobile devices.

It is about pages with a large amount of content –videos, images, graphics, ads, etc.–, such as media websites, loading instantly on devices and distribution platforms, offering users an experience Fluid and attractive both on mobile and on desktop.

According to the project website, AMP is built thanks to a “deep collaboration with thousands of developers, publishers, websites, distribution platforms and technology companies”, and more than 1.5 billion AMP pages have already been published, with over 100 expert analytics, ad tech [ ad tech ] companies and CMS vendors supporting the format.

Regarding agreements with other entities, Google agreed at the end of 2016 a strategic collaboration to promote digital innovation among the media associated with the Spanish Association of Editorials of Periodical Publications (AEEPP), an independent business entity formed by more than 120 groups and companies. Editorials that edit more than 1,000 printed and more than twice digital headings.

Beyond our borders, in the US, Google has also launched a news literacy program to help children make smart decisions through games and tutorials.

Facebook tools
In parallel, in recent months, Facebook has also opted for programs and projects similar to those of Google to collaborate in the professional training of journalists and promote digital innovation in the media. Thus, the Facebook Journalism Project training program was launched , which establishes “stronger ties with the news industry, collaborating to become partners in the media and to provide citizens with the knowledge necessary to be informed in the digital age” . Product development and training, with online coursesFor journalists based on content discovery, storytelling and audience building, they are the cornerstones of Mark Zuckerberg’s company project. The objective: that the social network becomes a tool of daily use for journalists when carrying out their work.

Like Google’s AMPs, Facebook also created Instant Articles in 2015 . It is about encouraging media news to be consumed on Facebook’s own platform, optimized for viewing within the network, saving the user waiting time for page loading and data consumption, and with immediate adaptation of content to the size of the device, while retaining the user on the network for a longer time. The medium benefits from that better experience that is given to the reader, but it loses direct traffic to its page, sharing with the company the advertising generated in the content. According to company data, as of June 2017, there were more than 10,000 media outlets worldwide using the Instant Articles format.

Daily Editions is another tool that Facebook makes available to the media, in agreement with international publishers such as The Washington Post , Fox News, BuzzFeed and El País , among others. These editions deliver to the users of the network first thing in the morning, in the format of the instant articles, five contents chosen directly by the medium according to a specific subject, without algorithms or automation in the selection criteria of the news .

Another interesting media tool provided by the social network is CrowdTangle (not yet open to all publishers). Acquired by Facebook in November 2016, it seeks to simplify the market study of social media to know how to viralize certain content, allowing publishers to know in detail which information is receiving more comments, interactions or clicks on social platforms. In this way, the media can control what the information consumption habits are, improve their social presence, give greater visibility to their information and create native content to consume explicitly on the networks, adapting the content to all of this. Four months after its acquisition by Facebook,More than 150 local newsrooms in the US had already adapted it to their newsrooms for free .

Of interest to the media, the most recent has been the company’s announcement of its new publication guidelines for news publishers at the end of last October, which includes “what should and should not be done” to help the media have the expected success on the platform.

In summary, Facebook “asks” publishers to focus on merely informative, interesting and meaningful content for the public, on understanding the users they want to reach, on optimizing the experience for mobile web, not publishing links misleading or links to poor quality pages and do not post anything if you do not have the necessary rights to share it.

The Subscription Challenge
Moving from an ad-focused revenue stream model to one supported primarily by readers through payment for digital content is another major challenge for the media industry. And it seems that little by little the aspiration to achieve loyal audiences through the construction of communities is on the way to becoming a reality, according to data from the World Press Trends 2017 of the international organization of newspapers WAN-IFRA , which figures that 56% of Global revenues from newspapers around the world were generated through readers’ payment, both for subscriptions and for sale.

The case of The New York Times , with nearly 2.5 million digital subscribers (not counting the printed version) and with an average income in 2016 of 51.4% between print and digital circulation, compared to 42% of the sum of Print and digital advertising is worthy of the study carried out by the Spanish journalist Ismael Nafría in his latest editorial work.

Zuckerberg Announced News Subscription Aids Through Paywall

And it seems that technology platforms here will also play an important role. Thus, Zuckerberg announced aid to news subscriptions by including a payment wall (a certain number of articles per month) or blocked articles ( freemium or mixed model ) for publishers using instant articles, asking network users that they subscribe to be able to read more news, with direct payments to the publishers’ websites, without repercussion for Facebook. “If people subscribe after watching the news on Facebook, the money will go directly to publishers who work hard to discover the truth,” said the executive.

Likewise, Facebook is also launching an initiative to increase journalistic brand awareness within the social network, with the inclusion of publisher logos next to the article when users search for information on the network or see it in news trends. .

Following the announcement of Facebook, Google also recently reported its commitment to subscriptions as a measure of support for payment methods, with the suspension of its First Click Free policy that forced payment methods to offer free content in news. of Google. From now on, the media will decide the number of free articles they want to offer, since, until now, publishers that offered subscription news services were required to report their content for free (the first part of the article for Google News and three articles through Google Search).

Journalist Frederic Filloux states that the role of both companies in the news subscription model could favor the creation of a sustainable news ecosystem , providing user data to publishers and co-developing a dynamic pricing system under long-term and reliable contracts. . “The risk is that reliance on these distribution platforms would increase, but the benefit would be significant gains in the reach and performance of publisher subscription systems,” he says.

War on fake news
In their efforts to promote quality content and the right of citizens to receive truthful information, both Facebook and Google have also begun their particular fight against fake news on their platforms, mainly as a result of accusations of influence of the social network in the US presidential elections, with the dissemination of information that allegedly favored President Trump. Something that forced Facebook to defend itself. “Of everything that people post on Facebook, 99% is authentic,” said the creator of the network through a live video on the network .

Facebook first announced its battle against clickbait . In a statement, the company signaled its users’ request to “see authentic stories,” announcing a commitment to update the News Feed algorithm to reduce the presence of misleading headlines. “We work hard to understand what stories are genuine for users,” he said, and “thus show them more prominently, and to understand what kinds of stories are considered misleading or spam , in order to make them appear less frequently.”

More recently, the network announced the release of a system to report false news , through a filter that was initially active in 14 countries, which detects hoaxes, fake news and propaganda, so that the user is alerted to the low truthfulness of the content and thus stop its diffusion. To deactivate content, it focused on three axes: removing the economic incentives of publishing, creating new products that curb malicious content, and helping society to make decisions based on information.

Subsequently, Google announced that it would add a label that would appear within the options on the news website , in order to indicate whether or not said content had verified facts and figures . Readers must be able to understand what has been proven, and what conclusions have been reached. The analyzes must be transparent about the sources that have been used and the methods by which the information was obtained, ”they explained from the search engine.

Technology to meet readers
The idea that the media and journalists should know how to take advantage of the advantages offered by technology and platforms to improve as an industry and thus alleviate the consequences of the different crises that affect industry.

Shift from advertising-focused to reader-focused business model

Having overcome the challenge of the convergence of paper and digital, and even that of digital transformation, the mainstream media must now focus, in the words of the University of Navarra professor Ramón Salaverría, on the challenge posed by the use of technology as a tool to produce, elaborate, disseminate and commercialize quality journalistic content. But technology can open many other doors for us, so a further step would be to use this technology to get to know our readers more and better when it comes to offering them not only what we know they demand or like the most, but what they really need, thus fulfilling the social and public service function of journalism. That type of content that users are willing to pay for,

In the short term, it is expected that a high percentage of the media will continue to rely on advertising as the main source of income. But the proper management of the possibilities that these platforms give us will allow us to use distribution not only to reach more people better and increase our clicks and advertising turnover, but to try to convince all that new audience we reach, with the good content that we provide, that they become funders of our environment.

In short, technology to produce and distribute better, but also to get to know our readers, attend to their information needs and make it revert to economic income for the medium.

Alejandro Laso, head of the El Confidencial innovation laboratory, also provides another interesting key: you have to go from being a journalistic company to being a technology company dedicated to producing news content .

It may sound strange, although it may begin to be a reality sooner rather than later. The Washington Post , from being acquired by Jeff Bezos, is a good example of this . In such complicated years, it set itself apart from the rest of the industry by hiring hundreds of journalists to maintain the quality of the information; He built his own technology advertising company, with a dozen products that even allow the customization of ads; He developed his own content management software , Arc Publishing, with which he earns income from sales to other publishers, and opted for technologies such as artificial intelligence to expand his writing and advertising capabilities.

What seems clear is that, at the rate at which technology advances, the permanent training of the journalist and his adaptation to continuous changes through an almost daily learning process is no longer an option, but an obligation. Technological development has entered journalism in such a way that it has become a key element of our present and most immediate future

 

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