We’ll embrace policy remedies

“It’s time journalists, advertisers, technologists, regulators, lawmakers, and others convene to craft equitable standards of distribution and monetization of news content.”

Fundamentally, the Fourth Estate’s paramount responsibility is to provide a public service. So how can we thrive, given compounding challenges — infection, inflation, consolidation, compression, manipulation — have left most newsrooms exhausted and shrunken yet expected to protect democracy on multiple platforms?

In the year ahead, news organizations big and small must help news consumers understand the threats to journalism and implications for our democracy using a time-tested method. Repeatedly and creatively “show, don’t tell” the ways that Big Tech’s dominance of digital advertising have eviscerated the news ecosystem.

Among the tactics we should see more of in 2023:

  • Tell our story: Keep visible on every webpage a link or box to a regular update of statistics (from Pew, Gallup, Reuters, Knight, Medill, et. al) that summarizes the deleterious impact of job loss, declining revenue, tech complications, and other factors. Of course, revealing these constraints facing newsrooms may contribute to consumers thinking less of our work. Continue to explain the hows and whys of the practice of legitimate, ethical journalism to differentiate news providers from aggregators and agitators. More news sites of all sizes should incorporate the Trust Project indicators and leverage NewsGuard’s transparent ratings and criteria for trustworthiness. We should be more aggressive and insistent in relating our economic circumstances and conveying our standards.
  • Unravel privacy. Part of our responsibility is to better tell users how their digital touchpoints have been exploited. In September 2020, The Markup released a privacy inspector called Blacklight, a great (but perhaps underutilized) “show, don’t tell” tool that demonstrated the “high privacy cost of a ‘free’ website” (Nieman Lab scores well; check yours). Those innocuous-sounding data trackers have proven to be relentlessly magnetizing, facilitating Big Tech’s surveillance of users online, without getting transparent consent, wherever they go in cyberspace. By building a wizard that shows people how their data is extracted versus how it should be used, news consumers will gain a deeper understanding of the economics of cookies, privacy, and the ad-targeting landscape after Google recalibrates its cookie-powered browser. Irish privacy expert Johnny Ryan has made a case for the end of cookie-powered surveillance advertising, but a before-and-after interactive could be very effective in explaining damage done by real-time bidding, which has been so detrimental to news organizations. With the phase-out of cookies and the end of third-party data looming, Google has delayed changes to its dominant Chrome browser until 2024. (Early 2023 bonus prediction: Don’t be surprised it if slides to 2025.) Perhaps a group like Digital Content Next, the American Press Institute, or another organization (or industry collaboration) could widely convey a vision of how the digital universe will work without cookies and why that’s important to the economic future of the news industry and the privacy of individuals.
  • Collaborate. Journalists must favor collaboration over competition. Given how algorithms surface news on veritable wire machines in our pockets, it’s time for news outlets to tamp down their get-it-first tendencies and collaborate. The higher goal is to ensure a broader range of topics is covered, not duplicated. Do we really need four networks sending reporters to do a standup at a crash site or to lean into gale-force winds? It’s time to cooperate, building more local and regional alliances to enable serious, impactful explanatory journalism that encourages engagement and adopts strategies like those espoused by the  Solutions Journalism Network or the Agora Journalism Center. Given how Big Tech has become too big and diverts advertising dollars from newsrooms, journalistic resources are scarce: Share them wisely.
  • Embrace regulatory remedites. It may seem odd, in December 2022, to harken to 19th century legislation, given that news arrives with a ping on a phone rather than via a pony or a clacking telegraph. But there are lessons to be learned. In 1870, a Congressional committee determined newspapers to be “completely in the power of the telegraph companies.” Congress went on use antitrust regulation to ensure that telegraph companies, and later telephone companies as well, operated as neutral telecommunication utilities and kept out the business of journalism. In 2023, isn’t Facebook or Google’s search engine as fundamental to the distribution of information as the telegraph of old? This is the year when regulators should ramp up efforts to regulate platform monopolies as essential infrastructure and force them to spin off properties engaged in adjacent businesses, such as journalism and advertising. Yes, that will be tricky, but it’s time journalists, advertisers, technologists, regulators, lawmakers, and others convene to craft equitable standards of distribution and monetization of news content.

2023 is the year we adopt regulations and policies and adapt to an evolving media landscape that requires we change and are open to new avenues of monetization and new remedies. To remain relevant and forestall what laid-off CNN media critic Brian Stelter calls “the creeping nature of media obsolescence,” and more amenable to necessary regulatory enforcement. If we’re able to, the future of journalism looks bright.

Fundamentally, the Fourth Estate’s paramount responsibility is to provide a public service. So how can we thrive, given compounding challenges — infection, inflation, consolidation, compression, manipulation — have left most newsrooms exhausted and shrunken yet expected to protect democracy on multiple platforms?

In the year ahead, news organizations big and small must help news consumers understand the threats to journalism and implications for our democracy using a time-tested method. Repeatedly and creatively “show, don’t tell” the ways that Big Tech’s dominance of digital advertising have eviscerated the news ecosystem.

Among the tactics we should see more of in 2023:

  • Tell our story: Keep visible on every webpage a link or box to a regular update of statistics (from Pew, Gallup, Reuters, Knight, Medill, et. al) that summarizes the deleterious impact of job loss, declining revenue, tech complications, and other factors. Of course, revealing these constraints facing newsrooms may contribute to consumers thinking less of our work. Continue to explain the hows and whys of the practice of legitimate, ethical journalism to differentiate news providers from aggregators and agitators. More news sites of all sizes should incorporate the Trust Project indicators and leverage NewsGuard’s transparent ratings and criteria for trustworthiness. We should be more aggressive and insistent in relating our economic circumstances and conveying our standards.
  • Unravel privacy. Part of our responsibility is to better tell users how their digital touchpoints have been exploited. In September 2020, The Markup released a privacy inspector called Blacklight, a great (but perhaps underutilized) “show, don’t tell” tool that demonstrated the “high privacy cost of a ‘free’ website” (Nieman Lab scores well; check yours). Those innocuous-sounding data trackers have proven to be relentlessly magnetizing, facilitating Big Tech’s surveillance of users online, without getting transparent consent, wherever they go in cyberspace. By building a wizard that shows people how their data is extracted versus how it should be used, news consumers will gain a deeper understanding of the economics of cookies, privacy, and the ad-targeting landscape after Google recalibrates its cookie-powered browser. Irish privacy expert Johnny Ryan has made a case for the end of cookie-powered surveillance advertising, but a before-and-after interactive could be very effective in explaining damage done by real-time bidding, which has been so detrimental to news organizations. With the phase-out of cookies and the end of third-party data looming, Google has delayed changes to its dominant Chrome browser until 2024. (Early 2023 bonus prediction: Don’t be surprised it if slides to 2025.) Perhaps a group like Digital Content Next, the American Press Institute, or another organization (or industry collaboration) could widely convey a vision of how the digital universe will work without cookies and why that’s important to the economic future of the news industry and the privacy of individuals.
  • Collaborate. Journalists must favor collaboration over competition. Given how algorithms surface news on veritable wire machines in our pockets, it’s time for news outlets to tamp down their get-it-first tendencies and collaborate. The higher goal is to ensure a broader range of topics is covered, not duplicated. Do we really need four networks sending reporters to do a standup at a crash site or to lean into gale-force winds? It’s time to cooperate, building more local and regional alliances to enable serious, impactful explanatory journalism that encourages engagement and adopts strategies like those espoused by the  Solutions Journalism Network or the Agora Journalism Center. Given how Big Tech has become too big and diverts advertising dollars from newsrooms, journalistic resources are scarce: Share them wisely.
  • Embrace regulatory remedites. It may seem odd, in December 2022, to harken to 19th century legislation, given that news arrives with a ping on a phone rather than via a pony or a clacking telegraph. But there are lessons to be learned. In 1870, a Congressional committee determined newspapers to be “completely in the power of the telegraph companies.” Congress went on use antitrust regulation to ensure that telegraph companies, and later telephone companies as well, operated as neutral telecommunication utilities and kept out the business of journalism. In 2023, isn’t Facebook or Google’s search engine as fundamental to the distribution of information as the telegraph of old? This is the year when regulators should ramp up efforts to regulate platform monopolies as essential infrastructure and force them to spin off properties engaged in adjacent businesses, such as journalism and advertising. Yes, that will be tricky, but it’s time journalists, advertisers, technologists, regulators, lawmakers, and others convene to craft equitable standards of distribution and monetization of news content.

2023 is the year we adopt regulations and policies and adapt to an evolving media landscape that requires we change and are open to new avenues of monetization and new remedies. To remain relevant and forestall what laid-off CNN media critic Brian Stelter calls “the creeping nature of media obsolescence,” and more amenable to necessary regulatory enforcement. If we’re able to, the future of journalism looks bright.

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