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Oct. 11, 2017, 10:51 a.m.
Business Models

Franklin Foer wants journalism to liberate itself from Facebook

“Subscriptions only matter if organizations have a strong sense of who they are. One of the tolls of the platforms has been to sap us of that sort of identity.”

In March 2012, when Chris Hughes, the billionaire cofounder of Facebook, took over The New Republic and brought back Franklin Foer as editor, the two were filled with a sense of optimism. They quickly got to work spending Hughes’s money: building up an impressive staff, “leasing offices in prime locations and hiring top-shelf consultants,” and “handsomely paying writers to travel the globe,” Foer confesses in his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech Companies.

In the end, however, the magazine “couldn’t resist the historical force remaking our profession,” Foer writes. Under Hughes, Foer argues, the publication embraced a reliance on data and algorithms that killed the core values of the magazine. Foer and others were driven out and the publication became a “vertically integrated digital media company,” in the words of its then-new CEO Guy Vidra.

In his book, Foer, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic, ruminates on the power he sees large tech companies holding over media outlets — a power he believes is detrimental to journalistic neutrality, the pursuit of truth, and intellectual rigor. I spoke to Foer about the dependence of media organizations on large tech platforms, his views on subscription-based models, and how he thinks journalism institutions should think about data and algorithms. Here’s our conversation, lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese: You write about your experience as editor at The New Republic under Chris Hughes’ ownership — how you both started out as idealists, but that the relationship “ended badly,” under pressure to build an online audience and earn ad revenue. Was there a moment when you sensed that things were heading the wrong way, from an editorial standpoint? Was there a way you could have taken the publication in a new direction?

Franklin Foer: Ambition can be a blinding thing. If we had restrained ourselves as we went along, we could’ve actually come out ahead and made it work. Ambition sounds like a great thing in journalism, but it’s also incredibly expensive. We built a pretty large staff, and so I think that given our natural size and given the size of the audience and our mission, we would’ve been better served being hugely disciplined in our spending. That’s one we could’ve managed profoundly differently, leading to a different outcome.

I actually think we were on a decent course before Chris panicked. If we’d given our business plan a little bit more time, we could’ve probably found a way to limit our losses to something that was reasonable in the short-term. That could’ve gotten us closer to profitability over the long term.

Reese: I’m sure The Atlantic faces some of the same constraints — the need for revenue, the need for page views — that you felt at The New Republic. The Atlantic obviously has a much larger readership; according to Pew, The Atlantic had 5.1 million unique visitors per month in 2014, while The New Republic had in the 1 million range. But how are the two different, in terms of the approach?

Foer: Well, I’m not in a managerial position at The Atlantic, so I don’t have any special insight into the way that the business is being run. But it seems that David Bradley had such a patient approach to making The Atlantic work as a business. It took a lot of trial and error, but he was eventually able to make it work. It seems to me that they figured out how to grow a couple different businesses simultaneously. They figured out how to sell digital advertising, which is so damn tricky.

These are just things that take time to build up. They’re specialized and their markets take a whole lot of time to understand. It takes time for the market to appreciate the virtues of a brand. That’s just patience.

Unfortunately, Chris’ ethos, and the ethos of many, many other people who would’ve been put in his position, was not a patient one.

Reese: How reliant are these media companies on platforms? Is there any way you could envision a media company that could break out of that constraint?

Foer: There’s a certainly a collective-action problem, where no media company wants to be the first one to bust free from the platforms, but the dependence on the platform is hugely problematic. It’s problematic from a business standpoint because the platforms are so capricious — Facebook changes what it wants all the time. Google changes what it wants all the time. Media slavishly trails after it, making all these editorial adjustments that require resources shifting around. There’s no way that media outlets can be nimble enough to keep up.

Dependence on the platform is not just hard on the business. I think it’s terrible for the soul, because the values of these platform companies end up shaping the values of all the media outlets that depend on them. Media ends up embracing the ethos of Facebook and Google. Facebook and Google end up worming their way into the very fiber of the organizations that rely on them for traffic — and therefore revenue.

The future of journalism — not just as a business, but as an enterprise — demands that we find some way to break free from the platforms. Newspaper publishers are doing interesting things in this regard in that they’ve decided to take on the platforms as an antitrust issue. They’re trying to find a policy solution for the problem. You know, bravo. You know, kudos to them for making that effort — because that’s probably ultimately what it’s going to take.

But I also think that we need to create cultural conditions in the public that make a subscription model more appealing. That that’s not something that can happen straight away because the public has become so acclimated to getting everything for nothing. Even when the Times imposes paywalls, they’re still not really asking very much of consumers relative to the resources that are required from consumers to fund journalism on that scale. Everything is out of whack right now.

Reese: In your book, you write that there’s this assumption that subscribers are getting older and are going to die off. How do you envision a new way of thinking about subscription-based models?

Foer: I’m a cultural critic, not an MBA, so I don’t really know. But I have instincts about this. My instinct is that it’s possible to create and cultivate a whole new set of values that lead people in a different direction.

Edward Bernays, who was the godfather of public relations and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote about public relations in the 1920s. He was hired by the book industry after the stock market crash. They needed to find some sort of way to juice the market.

He came up with an elegantly brilliant solution, which was that he promoted bookshelves, which had not been a fixture in middle-class homes until them. He worked with architectural magazines and women’s magazines and home magazines to try to make bookshelves a sign of middle-class life. It seemed to have worked.

I think that something similar could happen with media now, which is that you need to find ways to make media seem like it’s representative of higher standard living. That it’s virtuous. That it’s a prerequisite for being a member of American life and good standing. I think it’s doable. It’s not easy.

Reese: Should we see media as “virtuous”? You write about the culture industries presenting themselves as the “organic alternative.” But should everyone have access to news and information, or is this just something extra for the privileged to consume?

Foer: Everybody should have access to media. The house of our democracy depends on it. I also think everybody should pay for media, just as everybody pays for food. Everybody needs food to survive, yet we don’t give away food for free. We create an economy that subsidizes it. I actually think it’s such an important good that we should consider ways for government to subsidize media as it does in Europe and as we’ve done here in this country since the beginning of the republic when we started giving cut-rate prices to newspapers, to the postage of newspapers and magazines.

While I think everybody needs good information, I also think that we need to respect the fact that there’s always going to be a high-end version of news. That’s gonna cost a hell of a lot of money for consumers to get, and that’s fine. That’s just the way that this ecosystem works. You need healthy elites in order to have a healthy public at large.

Reese: One of the core issues you have is with the way data is being use to manipulate readers and audiences — to feed them what they are looking for. What about the argument that maybe news organizations should ask for more or different types of data?

Foer: Data exists in the fact that we have all this information. What I resent is the way in which data becomes a substitute for judgment. That data begins to lead conversations rather than the other way around. I think that we’re awash in data. I hate walking into newsrooms that have massive screens hovering over telling people how things are performing on social media or the traffic that’s flowing to any piece at any given moment. That becomes oppressive. It becomes the enemy of creativity. It becomes the enemy of human judgment, because we begin to defer to that.

I don’t want to be overly binary and say that we should ignore it all together because, look, we’ve always had data in media. We’ve always known how many copies of the newspaper sold. We’ve always looked at newsstand sales of magazines or ratings for TV news. That’s driven decisions since time immemorial, and we want an audience for what we produce. I don’t think that we can banish data all together, but I think we can fetishize it a whole lot less.

Reese: Do you think there will be a point where journalists and organizations get tired of relying on data? Or is this only moving in one direction?

Foer: I’m pretty optimistic that there’ll be pushback, because we’re in the midst of an era that’s fairly extreme, where we have access to so much information.

Why do I believe that a backlash is possible? First, it’s because I think that it’s inevitable that journalism gets angry at its dependence on Facebook. It looks for ways to liberate itself from Facebook because the financial viability, the profession, ultimately depends on it. Once journalism liberates itself from Facebook, I think that will alleviate some of the obsession with data.

Second, I think that the ethos of journalism is probably not as strong as we thought it was, but there’s still something within journalists that’s gonna ultimately chase against the trends. There’s bound to be a point at which journalism just says, “Enough. We can’t stomach this.” Or at least things start to moderate in some sort of way.

Reese: Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. What would happen, say, if Mark Zuckerberg bought The New York Times? Are big news organizations susceptible to being taken over by large tech companies or tech executives?

Foer: Sure. I mean, this is what happens around the world and through American history. You have oligarchs, you have rich people who try to buy media in order to both control information and also to launder their reputations because newspapers are seen as a sign of civic commitment. It would be totally un-shocking if Zuckerberg were to, at some point, try to buy The New York Times.

I think it’s a problem. They already control so much access to information and I just don’t think our democracy can sustain having such extreme concentrations of informational power.

Reese: Your book seems to hold journalists and journalism to a high standards — in the pursuit of truth, the investigation of power, and other noble values. What about the argument that, say, the people working in the tech companies have their own core values? That they want to make information free and connect people, and all those things? Do you see very different core values in media organizations versus the tech industry?

Foer: Yeah, I do. Journalism has a commitment about holding people to truth, and that’s not the core commitment of the tech companies. There’s much more of, I think, a sense of almost relativism that you get with the tech companies. You saw this in Zuckerberg’s response to the fake news crisis during the last presidential election. He just struggled to understand what was so wrong about it or what Facebook had done wrong in the midst of it.

It’s because the whole notion of Facebook or Amazon or Google is to be responsive to the market, to give consumers exactly what they desire. If consumers desire fake news and propaganda, then that’s what they get.

Reese: What about Facebook’s recent announcement about not allowing pages that had fake news to put up ads? Do you think things could move in a different direction?

Foer: I think that was political pressure that Zuckerberg was facing that caused him to at least make some gestural attempt to solve the problem of fake news. The problem is that Facebook can’t regulate fake news. If Facebook were to take an extremely strong stance against fake news, what would that look like? If Donald Trump posted an announcement…say, if Donald Trump were banging on about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, which I think counts as fake news, would a platform be able to strip Donald Trump of a microphone?

The problem is that if Facebook were to acknowledge its ability to gate keep in that sort of way, it would piss a lot of people off, and it would actually highlight the extent of their power. The more that Facebook inserts itself into the middle of controversy, the more it stirs up enemies, the greater the likelihood of there being a movement to regulate Facebook.

I think Facebook is, to an extent, stuck.

Reese: I want to bring the conversation back to data and algorithms. You write that “algorithms are meant to erode free will.” Do you think that data and algorithms have any kind of inherent good or evil?

Foer: I’m not anti-algorithms. Algorithms are neutral. They’re procedures, they’re systems. We benefit from them all the time. I mean, I happen to like Spotify’s algorithms. I dig algorithms that lead me to the sneakers that I never knew I wanted to buy. I don’t think that they’re necessarily oppressive.

The problem is that algorithms play this role in sorting information for us, guiding us to things. Algorithms are essentially picking winners and losers in markets, in news, in culture — and, in effect, in democracy. Because they’re so invisible, we don’t really apply skepticism to them. There’s no real countervailing force working against them, which means algorithms become a source of enormous power for these corporations.

That’s just something we have to worry about.

Reese: Clearly media companies have some dependency on platforms. But do any of these platforms or tech companies also depend on the content produced by media organizations, the journalism? What’s the relationship there?

Foer: Yes, of course. They sort the world, so they need access to news. They need access to entertainment. What they’ve done is they’ve diminished the relevance of media brands. When you’re clicking through Facebook or Google, you’re only dimly aware of where you’re clicking. I mean, you click based on headlines I think probably much more than on the name of the purveyor of information. It just becomes this giant stew where media brands have become devalued and bylines are devalued. That’s the way these companies like it.

Reese: What advice would you give a publication that’s starting from scratch? How could it become successful in the current landscape?

Foer: We live in this world where the distinctions between media outlets have become blurred. The distinctions between bylines have become blurred. That really saddens me, and I feel like it’s reflected in the way in which so much of the internet feels homogenous. In order to maintain the value of your product, you have to be fierce in protecting the identity of your organization and in the identity of your writers.

Sadly, I feel like we’ve stumbled into this world where those things have been devalued. Starting over again, yes, I would love it if we had subscriptions, but subscriptions only matter if organizations have a strong sense of who they are. One of the tolls of the platforms has been to sap us of that sort of identity.

Photo of Foer discussing his book last month by the Berkeley Center for New Media used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 11, 2017, 10:51 a.m.
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