Stop pretending publishers are a united front

“Does anyone seriously believe that fewer lies on Facebook, a monthly check from Google, or bigger quarterly profits for newspaper companies will in themselves resolve any of these issues?”

We’ve got a lot of fights ahead of us in 2021 over misinformation, platforms, business models, the future of the profession, and much more. We’re not going to agree on which ones are more important, what the right approaches are, or whether we want to acknowledge them in public. But they are there nonetheless, and I think we need to confront them, because they won’t go away. Here are just a few:

Do we need to name publishers who are part of misinformation problems?

It felt like a new phase to me when The New York Times in October published a chart of “Outlets Posting Misinformation” that maintained no distinction between Fox News and outlets like the Palmer Report and The Federalist. It was based on data from the German Marshall Fund and simply, without commenting on the editorial choice, classified one of the most widely used news sources in the U.S. as a misinformation provider, implicitly embracing the argument long advanced by Yochai Benkler and his colleagues.

The issue is hardly specific to the U.S., or even a recent one. Some publishers have a terrible record on climate change. The history of how news has dealt with race (and much more) is due for a reckoning, as recognized by, for instance, the Los Angeles Times. The first misinformation problem that drove the EU to action was not Russian operatives but the various “Euromyths” promoted by parts of the British press. As one team of prominent academics argued recently in a research article largely ignored by journalists, “mainstream media are responsible for much of the public attention fake news stories receive.”

Is it time to be more open about these problems? Perhaps even cover them? We often skirt the issue, including in fact-checking. PolitiFact — and this is not a criticism; they do great, important work — has at the time of writing done 916 fact checks of Donald Trump compared to 2 on Fox News (and 1 on CNN).

It’s not as if the public can’t tell there are differences. Even in countries where trust in news is low, and trust in journalists even lower, trust in some individual news providers remain high, and the public’s assessment of the trustworthiness of individual brands is well aligned with expert assessments of accuracy. Do we want people to trust journalism or some journalism? News or some news?

The public primarily sees politicians and platforms (especially Facebook) as responsible for misinformation, but whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, much of the public also sees some forms of journalism as examples of so-called “fake news.” Ignoring that inconvenient truth won’t make it go away. Ignoring the inconvenient truth that they might be right won’t make it go away either.

Do we need to have this out in public and name publishers who are part of misinformation problems? If so, which publishers? We don’t agree on this.

Can we recognize that publishers don’t agree on how to deal with platforms?

The struggles over editorial control, data, and money continue between a multitude of publishers and a smaller number of platforms including a few dominant ones such as Google and Facebook.

I don’t think many publishers like or trust the platform companies, but that commonality aside, their approaches to dealing with them are very different. In the last year alone, The Guardian, Le Monde, Spiegel, and others have joined The New York Times and others in taking money from the big platforms (as we do at the Reuters Institute), presumably because they believe they can maintain their independence and put the money to good use (as we believe). Axel Springer, the Daily Mail, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and others have, with some exceptions, often taken a different line.

Leaving aside commercial self-interest, what do we think about this from an ideal point of view? What does “good” actually look like?
In Australia, under new regulations, platforms are supposed to negotiate payments for public interest news. Given its market share, News Corp may well be the single biggest beneficiary even as former Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calls Murdoch’s media “an arrogant cancer on our democracy,” former Conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calls News Corp’s work “pure propaganda” that “has done enormous damage to the world, to the global need to address global warming,” and a petition for an inquiry into their influence has mobilized record public support.

And it gets even more complicated. Apart from a few large chains, individual local publishers often struggle to get a hearing in these discussions, as do many smaller digital-born and nonprofit outlets. Some publishers say they are cutting back on investment in social media, or even ceasing totally, as Folha de S.Paolo and Stuff have done. Others, like Brut, are doubling down on distributed reach.

Can we recognize that, despite various industry associations and trade groups’ attempt to present a common front, publishers don’t agree on how to deal with platforms? There’s no consensus here, either.

Is it time for a reminder that publishers compete with one another and often don’t have the same interests?

Some of these disagreements are about divergent interests. It is increasingly clear that much of the news market is a national winner-takes-most market, dominated by a few big brands both when it comes to attention (and thus advertising) as well as subscriptions.

These are not necessarily zero-sum games in a strict sense, but they are very competitive markets — how many people will, at the end of the day, subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and a local newspaper? Not many. How many people will click on ABC, CBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, as well as BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Vox (or USA Today), and also MSN and Yahoo News, and for that matter also the website of their local broadcaster or any of the other multitude of news sites that still are free and ad-supported? Not many.

Most people use just a few different sources of news and spend only a very small percent of their time online with news, and among the minority of people who pay for news, most pay for one source. Given the relatively limited share news is of the big platforms’ overall operations, even if they cough up some money for some news content, who should get it? (See above…) And on what basis? In the Australian negotiations, News Corp argued original content should be favored. The Daily Mail disagreed, saying it can be hard to determine what exactly is original, and argued more broadly that “‘quality’ in journalism is entirely subjective.” Newspaper publishers have been trying to keep broadcasters out of some of the proposed schemes, and for-profit media have lobbied against including public service media, just as many digital-born and nonprofit titles (rightly) fear that these schemes often seem oriented toward legacy incumbents.

Is it time for a reminder that publishers (still) compete with one another, in addition to competing with everybody else? Commercially, there is arguably often more competition than common interest.

Are we trying to restore the journalism we had or build toward the different journalisms we want?

In some parts of the profession and the industry, there seems to be a sense that, if only news publishers could have the same size of newsrooms and make the same kind of money as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, things would be fine.

Would they? It’s not clear to me that more cash or higher headcount in itself is an answer to calls for greater moral clarity or many of the other issues we face.

The turn of the century may have been a high point for a certain kind of late modern American newspaper journalism, and was, despite the fact that per capita circulation in the U.S. had been in nonstop decline for 50 years, a profitable time for newspaper companies who dominated some kinds of local advertising (let’s be clear — their business was mainly ads, not journalism).

I don’t want to belittle or dismiss the very real values of this journalism, which produced some amazing reporting that reached a wide public. But we need to be clear: The supposed high point was also a time of complacency about climate change, police violence, and structural inequalities around gender, race, class, and much more; a time when many prestigious news media swallowed the Bush administration line on the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; a time when practices normally described as torture were accepted as “enhanced interrogation techniques”; and a time when newsrooms were much less diverse than society at large and white men dominated top editorial leadership even more than they do today.

So who exactly was this a golden age for? Does anyone seriously believe that fewer lies on Facebook, a monthly check from Google, or bigger quarterly profits for newspaper companies will in themselves resolve any of these issues?

So even leaving aside the misinformation, the platforms, and business, are we trying to restore the journalism we had or build toward the different journalisms we want? We don’t agree on this either.

Where do we go next?

Who likes arguments? I don’t. But I welcome these disagreements because they are important. The stakes are high. Everything is up in the air: The quality of news and information people rely on, the ways in which they access it, the business models that fund it, and what journalism even ought to look like.

I don’t know what the right thing is, or that there always is a single right thing to do. I respect people on different sides of these debates (and others). In any case, I don’t make it my job to presume to tell others how to do their job. This stuff is hard, we have different priorities, and the paths ahead are unclear. There are trade-offs between different values, unwelcome concessions made to unforgiving realities.

But we will be better able to find those paths if we contend with the reality of the situation we are in: Status quo journalism is in free-fall, not just commercially, but also often in the eye of large parts of the public. Much of the public in much of the world neither trusts nor values existing journalism as they know it, many see it as pro-establishment, and large minorities see news as part and parcel of misinformation problems, on platforms and elsewhere.

As we face this, we have to recognize we are not all in the same boat, or even interested in paddling in the same direction. We now have vaccines against Covid, but there are no magic cures for the many challenges facing journalism and the news media, the many disagreements outlined here.

Maybe we just need to fight it out — sometimes among ourselves, sometimes in public — to figure out what paths ahead are right for each of us, for the journalisms we aspire to, and for the different parts of the public we want to serve. If so, I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

We’ve got a lot of fights ahead of us in 2021 over misinformation, platforms, business models, the future of the profession, and much more. We’re not going to agree on which ones are more important, what the right approaches are, or whether we want to acknowledge them in public. But they are there nonetheless, and I think we need to confront them, because they won’t go away. Here are just a few:

Do we need to name publishers who are part of misinformation problems?

It felt like a new phase to me when The New York Times in October published a chart of “Outlets Posting Misinformation” that maintained no distinction between Fox News and outlets like the Palmer Report and The Federalist. It was based on data from the German Marshall Fund and simply, without commenting on the editorial choice, classified one of the most widely used news sources in the U.S. as a misinformation provider, implicitly embracing the argument long advanced by Yochai Benkler and his colleagues.

The issue is hardly specific to the U.S., or even a recent one. Some publishers have a terrible record on climate change. The history of how news has dealt with race (and much more) is due for a reckoning, as recognized by, for instance, the Los Angeles Times. The first misinformation problem that drove the EU to action was not Russian operatives but the various “Euromyths” promoted by parts of the British press. As one team of prominent academics argued recently in a research article largely ignored by journalists, “mainstream media are responsible for much of the public attention fake news stories receive.”

Is it time to be more open about these problems? Perhaps even cover them? We often skirt the issue, including in fact-checking. PolitiFact — and this is not a criticism; they do great, important work — has at the time of writing done 916 fact checks of Donald Trump compared to 2 on Fox News (and 1 on CNN).

It’s not as if the public can’t tell there are differences. Even in countries where trust in news is low, and trust in journalists even lower, trust in some individual news providers remain high, and the public’s assessment of the trustworthiness of individual brands is well aligned with expert assessments of accuracy. Do we want people to trust journalism or some journalism? News or some news?

The public primarily sees politicians and platforms (especially Facebook) as responsible for misinformation, but whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, much of the public also sees some forms of journalism as examples of so-called “fake news.” Ignoring that inconvenient truth won’t make it go away. Ignoring the inconvenient truth that they might be right won’t make it go away either.

Do we need to have this out in public and name publishers who are part of misinformation problems? If so, which publishers? We don’t agree on this.

Can we recognize that publishers don’t agree on how to deal with platforms?

The struggles over editorial control, data, and money continue between a multitude of publishers and a smaller number of platforms including a few dominant ones such as Google and Facebook.

I don’t think many publishers like or trust the platform companies, but that commonality aside, their approaches to dealing with them are very different. In the last year alone, The Guardian, Le Monde, Spiegel, and others have joined The New York Times and others in taking money from the big platforms (as we do at the Reuters Institute), presumably because they believe they can maintain their independence and put the money to good use (as we believe). Axel Springer, the Daily Mail, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and others have, with some exceptions, often taken a different line.

Leaving aside commercial self-interest, what do we think about this from an ideal point of view? What does “good” actually look like?
In Australia, under new regulations, platforms are supposed to negotiate payments for public interest news. Given its market share, News Corp may well be the single biggest beneficiary even as former Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd calls Murdoch’s media “an arrogant cancer on our democracy,” former Conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calls News Corp’s work “pure propaganda” that “has done enormous damage to the world, to the global need to address global warming,” and a petition for an inquiry into their influence has mobilized record public support.

And it gets even more complicated. Apart from a few large chains, individual local publishers often struggle to get a hearing in these discussions, as do many smaller digital-born and nonprofit outlets. Some publishers say they are cutting back on investment in social media, or even ceasing totally, as Folha de S.Paolo and Stuff have done. Others, like Brut, are doubling down on distributed reach.

Can we recognize that, despite various industry associations and trade groups’ attempt to present a common front, publishers don’t agree on how to deal with platforms? There’s no consensus here, either.

Is it time for a reminder that publishers compete with one another and often don’t have the same interests?

Some of these disagreements are about divergent interests. It is increasingly clear that much of the news market is a national winner-takes-most market, dominated by a few big brands both when it comes to attention (and thus advertising) as well as subscriptions.

These are not necessarily zero-sum games in a strict sense, but they are very competitive markets — how many people will, at the end of the day, subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and a local newspaper? Not many. How many people will click on ABC, CBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, as well as BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Vox (or USA Today), and also MSN and Yahoo News, and for that matter also the website of their local broadcaster or any of the other multitude of news sites that still are free and ad-supported? Not many.

Most people use just a few different sources of news and spend only a very small percent of their time online with news, and among the minority of people who pay for news, most pay for one source. Given the relatively limited share news is of the big platforms’ overall operations, even if they cough up some money for some news content, who should get it? (See above…) And on what basis? In the Australian negotiations, News Corp argued original content should be favored. The Daily Mail disagreed, saying it can be hard to determine what exactly is original, and argued more broadly that “‘quality’ in journalism is entirely subjective.” Newspaper publishers have been trying to keep broadcasters out of some of the proposed schemes, and for-profit media have lobbied against including public service media, just as many digital-born and nonprofit titles (rightly) fear that these schemes often seem oriented toward legacy incumbents.

Is it time for a reminder that publishers (still) compete with one another, in addition to competing with everybody else? Commercially, there is arguably often more competition than common interest.

Are we trying to restore the journalism we had or build toward the different journalisms we want?

In some parts of the profession and the industry, there seems to be a sense that, if only news publishers could have the same size of newsrooms and make the same kind of money as they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, things would be fine.

Would they? It’s not clear to me that more cash or higher headcount in itself is an answer to calls for greater moral clarity or many of the other issues we face.

The turn of the century may have been a high point for a certain kind of late modern American newspaper journalism, and was, despite the fact that per capita circulation in the U.S. had been in nonstop decline for 50 years, a profitable time for newspaper companies who dominated some kinds of local advertising (let’s be clear — their business was mainly ads, not journalism).

I don’t want to belittle or dismiss the very real values of this journalism, which produced some amazing reporting that reached a wide public. But we need to be clear: The supposed high point was also a time of complacency about climate change, police violence, and structural inequalities around gender, race, class, and much more; a time when many prestigious news media swallowed the Bush administration line on the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; a time when practices normally described as torture were accepted as “enhanced interrogation techniques”; and a time when newsrooms were much less diverse than society at large and white men dominated top editorial leadership even more than they do today.

So who exactly was this a golden age for? Does anyone seriously believe that fewer lies on Facebook, a monthly check from Google, or bigger quarterly profits for newspaper companies will in themselves resolve any of these issues?

So even leaving aside the misinformation, the platforms, and business, are we trying to restore the journalism we had or build toward the different journalisms we want? We don’t agree on this either.

Where do we go next?

Who likes arguments? I don’t. But I welcome these disagreements because they are important. The stakes are high. Everything is up in the air: The quality of news and information people rely on, the ways in which they access it, the business models that fund it, and what journalism even ought to look like.

I don’t know what the right thing is, or that there always is a single right thing to do. I respect people on different sides of these debates (and others). In any case, I don’t make it my job to presume to tell others how to do their job. This stuff is hard, we have different priorities, and the paths ahead are unclear. There are trade-offs between different values, unwelcome concessions made to unforgiving realities.

But we will be better able to find those paths if we contend with the reality of the situation we are in: Status quo journalism is in free-fall, not just commercially, but also often in the eye of large parts of the public. Much of the public in much of the world neither trusts nor values existing journalism as they know it, many see it as pro-establishment, and large minorities see news as part and parcel of misinformation problems, on platforms and elsewhere.

As we face this, we have to recognize we are not all in the same boat, or even interested in paddling in the same direction. We now have vaccines against Covid, but there are no magic cures for the many challenges facing journalism and the news media, the many disagreements outlined here.

Maybe we just need to fight it out — sometimes among ourselves, sometimes in public — to figure out what paths ahead are right for each of us, for the journalisms we aspire to, and for the different parts of the public we want to serve. If so, I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

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