Facebook and Google Need to Start Paying Journalists What They Owe Us
January 24, 2019 3:02 PM   Subscribe

While news consumption online is at an all time high, newsrooms like Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and newspapers all over are being forced to cut staff due to low revenue. The problem is that the major online players like Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon are winding up with the lion's share of advertising revenue from content they did nothing to make, which is choking off the media. But, there are several ideas as to how to force a more fair distribution of funds. (SLSlate)
posted by NoxAeternum (46 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I do feel like surely some of this has to do with a glut of content, though. I mean, there is a lot of pretty worthless content out there. I could certainly live without the Huffington Post's endless supply of hot takes, for instance—not sure what value that's adding to our cultural discourse. I feel like a lot of these problems are inevitable when you base an industry around trying to entice/trick/force people to look at advertisements.

The issue is that it's not really clear what other model would be viable. Google and Facebook certainly aren't helping matters any, but personally I think the problem is even deeper than that. The media are wholly dependent on advertisers, and they generate an astounding amount of absolute dreck in an effort to gin up ad revenue. They are drowning in their own sewage—the fact that bigger companies are coming in to skim the cream off the top (ew) just adds insult to injury.

Don't think I'm rooting for the megacorps, though. They certainly need to be made to pay their fair share, although honestly good luck with that one.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:10 PM on January 24 [12 favorites]


So German publishers got court ruling to stop Google from linking in 2014 and quickly changed their minds. And while Google's behaviour may leave a lot to be desired, there isn't any advertising on news.google.com. The notion that Google profits directly off those links seems misguided. FB is a different beast.
posted by GuyZero at 4:29 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


The media are wholly dependent on advertisers, and they generate an astounding amount of absolute dreck in an effort to gin up ad revenue.

Also newspaper-type advertising just isn't very attractive to advertisers vs
a) google's search-intent based advertising
or
b) FB's hyper-targeted ads that give advertisers a ton of personal data
posted by GuyZero at 4:30 PM on January 24


An ad revenue tax to pay for journalism is an interesting idea, but I've never really gotten the idea of making Google or Facebook or whoever pay directly to link to news stories.

Those slots on the search results and the newsfeed are worth something to the link recipient, more so than any particular article is worth featuring to Google or Facebook. Companies including publishers pay to put specific ads on Google and Facebook, but Google and Facebook just have machines auction those slots out to the highest bidder.

Also, there's a lot of precedent for sharing headlines from news stories and linking to them without paying royalties. News sites link to each other and quote snippets of stories all the time, and I'd argue they're protected by copyright fair use principles and (in the U.S.) the First Amendment. It's going to be hard to pass a law that says you can't freely share the title of a copyrighted work and where to find it without the author's permission. You can argue hyperlinking is different than saying "in today's Podunk Post." But I'm not sure that would hold up in court or that browser extensions wouldn't just pop up to turn the latter to the former.

There's also a problem of knowing who to pay. What if a popular site's owner chooses to stay anonymous? Do search engines and social sites have to hold money in escrow for them indefinitely in case they ever come forward? Can U.S. sites not link to sites in Iran because they'd have to pay them, breaking sanctions?

You'd also have a serious problem with crap sites trying to show up on feeds and search results near valuable ads, probably meaning ads targeted at rich people, new parents and people with potential personal injury suits so they could get a cut of that ad review. On social sites, that would mean everyday users getting personally paid to post links, which would show up on their friends' feeds and get a cut of the ads shown alongside them. Presumably you could make more if you had friends with deep pockets.

And remember, Instagram is by some measures healthier than core Facebook and it doesn't allow links at all except in the profile "bio" and ads. There's a risk Facebook would say, fine, we won't let anyone link to anything.
posted by smelendez at 4:45 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I'm not a fan of Google and Facebook but it really seems like they're just selling a better product (to advertisers) than news organizations are. And it would probably still be a better product if all the big news orgs pulled their links from Google and Facebook. I think I would be ok with them being banned from selling targeted ads (which seems incredibly unlikely to happen), but not particularly on the behalf of saving journalism's outdated business model.
posted by ghharr at 4:45 PM on January 24


So German publishers got court ruling to stop Google from linking in 2014 and quickly changed their minds.

Of course they did - there were plenty of other news stories for users to find at Google. The restriction wasn't on Google getting ad revenue from promoting all stories, just one segment of their market, and not a particularly large one.

The article quotes a tweet suggestion by Matt Stoller:
"It might be time for Congress to give Amazon, Facebook, and Google five years to get out of the targeted ad business. You can be a common carrier or an ad company, but not both." (As Stoller explained to me via direct message, his proposed law would be akin to regulations that prevent phone companies from making you listen to an ad before you place a call or send a text.)
A lot of the changes we need to the digital world are "take the laws we have that apply to print and other media, and demand that ISP-based businesses follow the same laws." There are some that would be horribly impractical to set up, but there are a lot more that wouldn't be difficult--they'd just cut off someone's choice revenue stream.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:52 PM on January 24 [8 favorites]


So German publishers got court ruling to stop Google from linking in 2014 and quickly changed their minds. And while Google's behaviour may leave a lot to be desired, there isn't any advertising on news.google.com. The notion that Google profits directly off those links seems misguided.

The incident with the German papers illustrates the problem - turns out that "either give us your content on our terms or we will make you disappear" isn't exactly conducive to fair negotiations.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:54 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


The notion that journalists are somehow entitled to this advertising revenue is.. Bathetic? I think that's the right word. It's not hilarious because it's also kind of sad. Mostly it's absurd. I've very sorry that advertisers have figured out it's far more efficient to place shoe ads somewhere else, but that's the market at work.

OTOH I also feel strongly in the importance of journalism and desperately want to see journalists get paid for their work. But somehow trying to force the market by undoing two decades of improvement in ad targeting ain't the solution.
posted by Nelson at 5:04 PM on January 24 [9 favorites]


I think another piece to this is that a lot of sites are paywalling /except/ to links coming from Facebook. If they paywalled instead to sites coming /from/ Facebook, you might see more interesting dynamics.
posted by corb at 5:06 PM on January 24


we will make you disappear" isn't exactly conducive to fair negotiations.

German newspapers did not disappear. That's a weird assertion to make.

Google and FB are comparable to Walmart in that they effectively have channel power over content producers. Guess what - there's lots of industries where the bulk of the profits go to the channel and not to the producer of the good. If building a massive channel was easy, everyone would do it.

Mandating that Google or FB subsidize newspapers would be like the US Congress setting Walmart's wholesaler's prices. It ain't going to happen.
posted by GuyZero at 5:09 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


You can be a common carrier or an ad company, but not both."

You're going to have a tough time getting this one by TV and cable companies.
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Google and more recently Facebook invented a better way of doing advertising. Newspapers are also complicated businesses. If you're owned by a predatory hedge fund, the goal is not to employ journalists. PostMedia in Canada regularly pays disbursements to its American hedge fund owner, while the former CEO, an overpaid sleazeball, sticks his hand out to the Canadian taxpayer for money.

In Canada, at least, journalists with seniority typically keep their jobs, while younger journalists are restructured or laid off. It doesn't make any sense: you're keeping the expensive journos while firing numerous cheaper employees. And then there is no succession planning -- where will the next generation come from? At the paper in my city most of the younger (35 and younger) journos have left, and have switched to government comms or more technical positions.

There are other ways of doing business. For example, even as newspaper revenues declined, the Washington Post doubled (at least) revenues by adopting a sophisticated digital-first strategy.

Smaller entrepreneurs are figuring out ways to produce quality journalism -- they just don't hire as many journalists.

But while Google and Facebook are to blame in some ways, they just made a better product to deliver advertising and collect revenue. I guess Facebook had the whole "pivot to video" fraud thing, and Facebook did encourage publishers to implement Instant Articles and then, a year or so later, throttled reach on FB. Facebook got the engagement it wanted with free content.

But that is the problem of the news organization (I work in audience engagement). It is a tough problem, but fundamentally the news biz has had 20 years to address this problem and it has not.
posted by JamesBay at 5:12 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


They're not common carriers though, are they? They're content producers, they pick and choose what goes on their networks.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:12 PM on January 24


They're not common carriers though, are they?

OK, TV networks probably not, but cable companies are, aren't they? You can't sue Comcast if someone on CNN defames you or something.
posted by GuyZero at 5:14 PM on January 24


Mandating that Google or FB subsidize newspapers would be like the US Congress setting Walmart's wholesaler's prices. It ain't going to happen.

It's not at the scale being discussed in this article, but both Google and Facebook both support journalism in various ways. It's not a solution to the revenue crisis, though.

The other crazy thing is that Google and Facebook are so large that in effect they are decentralized organizations. There is no one Google that has mastery over the rest of Google on a day-by-day basis. Same for Facebook. It's really weird sometimes talking and working with policy people in those companies. They literally have no idea what's going on.
posted by JamesBay at 5:14 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I’m surprised so many people are pooh-poohing this. There’s a strain of thought, probably most well-known from Jaron Lanier, that social media should pay its users for their content, because without the users generating posts, the social media companies would literally have nothing.

This seems like the other side of that argument.
posted by Automocar at 5:16 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I think another piece to this is that a lot of sites are paywalling /except/ to links coming from Facebook.

Google used to have a similar program which they changed in 2017.

"Content and news publishers will now control whether and how many articles they want to let searchers access before showing a paywall or subscription prompt. The company is also working on an array of other tools to help boost publisher subscriptions."
posted by GuyZero at 5:16 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I’m surprised so many people are pooh-poohing this.

Me, I'm just a big ol' curmudgeon when it comes to ads.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:21 PM on January 24


I'm pooh-poohing the article because its fundamental premise wrong. Social media is not the sole reason for the decline of newspapers. Mismanagement (not by journos!) over the last twenty years is the primary culprit.
posted by JamesBay at 5:48 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]


For those who aren’t quite sure why these media layoffs keep happening, or think “it’s the internet!” or “people don’t pay to subscribe,” there’s a lot more going on. Though that is part of that. Here’s a cliffs notes version - not exhaustive but it hits the highlight
posted by JamesBay at 6:05 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


It seems like nobody ever seriously gave micropayments a go. Is there a reason for that?
posted by bookman117 at 6:07 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


It seems like nobody ever seriously gave micropayments a go. Is there a reason for that?

I feel like I've written this comment at least like four times, but Google actually did give micropayments a go, through a service called 'Contributor' by which users could pay to bid on ads for themselves. This service was relatively cheap ($5/month would get rid of most ads), and worked, but Google cancelled it in 2017. Tinfoil hat: Google cancelled it because it made clear how much privacy people were giving up for such little money (i.e., that advertising companies are tracking you across the internet, keeping tabs on you through GPS, reading your email and texts, showing you invasive ads in every medium available, in order to make all of $60/year).
posted by Pyry at 6:16 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]


Yeah, micro-payments are thriving on platforms like Twitch for gaming, and one of the reasons it's so successful there is they make the process of donating extremely painless. Also, viewers on Twitch can donate as much or as little as they choose. Publishers, I think, still have a hard time with that model, although folks like The Guardian are doing it well.

Also, each publisher tries to reinvent the wheel and no standard has emerged (Pvry's comment above may point to why).
posted by jeremias at 6:23 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]


I feel like the fundamental problem with micropayments is that there is a big psychological difference between paying anything, even a nickel, and paying nothing. If I have to make a conscious decision to spend a non-zero amount of money on something, especially something that I'm used to not spending money on, chances are I just won't do it. Plus there's the friction of dealing with the micropayments system itself—do I really have the patience to manage and monitor yet another payment system (or let's be honest, at least three of them because chances are there would be competing systems at least for a while) with all of the attendant frustrations and security risks that that involves? No, I do not. I don't even usually have the patience to sign up for a free account for things, these days. Everybody wants a piece of me, it's a source of chronic low-grade irritation and I doubt very much that I'm alone in that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:27 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


Here I'm going to plug a Google service that no longer exists, but Contributor solved both these issues (having to choose to spend, and the friction of dealing with payments) by just automatically buying ads for yourself from a monthly budget that you set. It worked really well. Of course the reason it worked is because Google controls like half of all the ads on the internet.
posted by Pyry at 6:37 PM on January 24


Ugh I resent paying because in theory I can get it for free but then I see this and remember why I choose to pay so the newspapers get paid (except my local paper which reminds me to email again to ask them to add more local sources) - you can already get micropayments with an app like inkl that pulls together news sources into a feed and pays them. I use it every day blah blah, highly recommended, Spotify for newspaper.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:39 PM on January 24


I’d be fine with a tax on (all) advertising to support journalism, if and only if the media supported are forced to become non-profits.

Otherwise I predict the result would be a large amount of cash redirected to media outlets whose executives and investors got a lot richer, and then shuttered newsrooms anyway.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 6:39 PM on January 24 [5 favorites]


And I have no idea why I am happy to buy a coffee from Starbucks yet resent spending the same on an app I genuinely like, use daily, supports work I believe in and gives me 30+ hours of reading a month easily and still I resent angrily in a lizard part of my brain spending the money on it because it's somehow free out there in the internet.

Maybe we need to be socially trained into seeing microtransactions as separate from money and free, the way cash is different emotionally from credit cards.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:46 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]


I and I think a lot of people seem comfortable giving money to independent streamers and podcasters because we know who is getting the cash and we can feel good about it. But when we read PR statements from media companies about right-sizing where the exec who made that tough decision makes more than the entire journalist staff they are laying off there is much less of a desire to give that entity our money, even if they pretend to be a local newspaper like we used to have.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:51 PM on January 24 [10 favorites]


It is interesting to me that if you look at what constituted a "News" program in the 80's: breaking stories, human interest, punditry, investigative-journalism, primary airtime, and so on that it is breaking stories that is suffering the most. Human interest stories have been done better by Facebook. There are more pundits for more specific political persuasions and worldviews than could ever have been imagined in the cable era. We are in a golden age of "primary airtime", practically every speech Trump has given since he announced his candidacy (including his rallies) is available in full. Not only do we have the fresh faces on YouTube and podcast doing "mini documentaries" and investigations but we have alot of "traditional" long read journalism doing well (including print books).

That investigative journalism seems to be doing so much better than breaking stories I think is most telling about what is going on structurally. It all comes down to advertising and length of "engagement". "Trump said a thing" just doesn't take that long to consume or can be consumed purely as a headline. Worse, since where "Trump said a thing" first breaks will vary we're all trained to give aggregators and not individual news organizations our daily "check in" time. Once the engagement gets deeper, other parts of the food chain get a bigger or even the largest part of the ad dollars. People will watch the full speech in which Trump "said the thing", they'll watch a twenty minute video from their favorite commentator on why what Trump said sucks, they'll read a book which uses what Trump said as a minor detail in an argument stating that the world is ending.

Sadly since the "problem" (from a breaking stories journalism perspective) is so structural, I don't really see how it can be overcome.
posted by always_implicated at 6:54 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


As people consume more and more on their phones, it seems to me that what publishers need is a compelling app experience that has a low annual subscription service.
posted by unliteral at 7:09 PM on January 24


There’s a strain of thought, probably most well-known from Jaron Lanier, that social media should pay its users for their content, because without the users generating posts, the social media companies would literally have nothing.


Whoa doggy! You mean I could get paid by metafilter for posting stuff? How much can I get for posting say, 50 fanfare posts a day? You need more? I can post more! What will Dreamwidth give me for book reviews?

I like this idea. I have a good feeling about it.

Anyway, pay me.
posted by happyroach at 7:29 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


I feel like the fundamental problem with micropayments is that there is a big psychological difference between paying anything, even a nickel, and paying nothing.

It’s not that. The problem is - how do you pay that nickel?

If I had a button I could press, easily, on a webpage - WITHOUT signing up for three thousand separate accounts, and WITHOUT letting them track me forever after - I would cheerfully pay .05$ for each WaPo article I read after seeing the first paragraph. But that button can not be made without a lot of trust in websites that I just don’t have, and any app that did it would face competition from the content producers as soon as it started. See, for example, content providers pulling out of Netflix.

I don’t want to give my email a million different places, not my credit card info to a hundred insecure sites. But other than that? Yeah, I’d pay.
posted by corb at 7:49 PM on January 24 [11 favorites]


It seems like nobody ever seriously gave micropayments a go. Is there a reason for that?

Micropayments are doing just fine in gaming apps.
One problem with micropayments is that someone is taking a cut of each payment, and also getting a record of who-pays-whom for every payment, which means both data and money are going to a third party, not the buyer or seller. And the middleman companies are getting rich and powerful on that.

Social media is not the sole reason for the decline of newspapers. Mismanagement (not by journos!) over the last twenty years is the primary culprit.

There's also the problem that the financial model for traditional journalism is based on a set of conditions that no longer exist. They're competing with social media for "random interesting story;" they're competing with webcomics and online games for sheer entertainment, and they're competing with Google and five hundred apps for tv and movie schedules.

There's no direct competition for investigative journalism, but there's indirect from specific sources: You can follow your favorite actor's Twitter, can subscribe to your favorite activist organization's mailing list.

Traditional journalism is based on the premise that "news" is a limited resource and therefore you should pay for access to it. We're now swimming in "news" and need "curation" services - and while publishers have always curated, that hasn't been their pitch, and they haven't figured out how to do, "we tell you the news you care about" without falling into "we're here to confirm your existing biases, not inform you."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:57 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]


It seems like PayPal would be in a good position to be the micropayment app of choice. I dunno.
posted by bookman117 at 9:23 PM on January 24


Does Journalism Have a Future? by Jill Lepore (in this week's New Yorker).
posted by Paul Slade at 12:40 AM on January 25


Also newspaper-type advertising just isn't very attractive to advertisers vs
a) google's search-intent based advertising
or
b) FB's hyper-targeted ads that give advertisers a ton of personal data


So, a sort-of fun-fact about FB advertising is that early in FB's advertising programme, they also believed (b). It seems obvious, you people listing their interests, what kind of music and films they like (on early Facebook, this was something people actually did). It turns out that most of that data is useless for advertising because it doesn't predict likelihood to buy except in really narrow categories. Persistently tracking where people are browsing, especially if they are doing online shopping is much, much more valuable and predictive.

FB tracks you around the web and is able to merge a lot of other people's datasets together which is also very valuable. What we think of as our most private stuff, content in our private messages, for instance, doesn't even matter to advertisers. They don't want to know if you're texting your high school ex, they want to know if you've been shopping for lawnmowers.
posted by atrazine at 6:50 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Seems like a natural thing to have orgs like EFF run a side business of something like micropayments. You're basically piggy-backing on the trust people have in the org that they won't skim and will be ethical in handling it. Seems like that trust that's in short supply on the net and people would appreciate guarantees like that.
posted by aleph at 7:17 AM on January 25


I've been advocating for privacy-focused (or not obviously privacy-averse) orgs like Mozilla or Pinboard to set up a micropayments platform. I want a micropayments system where I can dump in $X/month and it will keep track of articles I bookmark or archived, and then divvy up my money afterwards.
posted by ropeladder at 7:39 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Yeah, someone needs to do for one-off payments what Patreon did for subscriptions. I.e., figure out a way to batch them up so as to avoid excessive fees.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:59 AM on January 25


There's no direct competition for investigative journalism, but there's indirect from specific sources: You can follow your favorite actor's Twitter, can subscribe to your favorite activist organization's mailing list.

For those who didn't see Netflix's latest investor statement: We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.

Newspapers lost the ad battle to competitors who can provide direct buying intent. But they're losing the news battle to a lot more outlets than that: twitter, instagram, FB, and cheaper news outlets (Take this quiz to find out which website you read more than your local newspaper).

Which is further exacerbated by the flatness of the internet - why read your local newspaper when it's just as easy to read the Washington Post or NY Times or heck, the Guardian? Locality was one of the major barriers to competition in the pre-internet world.
posted by GuyZero at 9:29 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]


There's no direct competition for investigative journalism, but there's indirect from specific sources: You can follow your favorite actor's Twitter, can subscribe to your favorite activist organization's mailing list.

Traditional journalism is based on the premise that "news" is a limited resource and therefore you should pay for access to it.


I agree. I follow a bunch of different journalists on Twitter, and organize them into lists. I have a "US politics" list, a "UK politics" list, a list for defense commentators, etc etc.

Anyway, since journos provide a meta-analysis of all stories on Twitter, I don't even need to read the news articles -- they talk about the stories, often providing more nuanced detail than the news stories themselves. And often there are links to primary documents that don't get linked-to in the news story, so, armed with context, I can read through source material and make up my own mind.

It's amazing! But not conducive in its current form to making me want to pay money for a subscription (I can only afford to subscribe to a couple of news sites).
posted by JamesBay at 9:29 AM on January 25


When you say "ugh I don't want to pay for [news/music/content], because I can get it for free out there on the internet", you are proceeding from a false premise. Nothing on the internet is free. You're paying for it already. You're paying Comcast and AT&T exorbitant rates for the slowest internet in the developed world. The ISPs are draining the money out of the system way before it gets to Your Local Newspaper, or Your Favorite Blog That Focuses On The Best Of The Web, or even Google or Facebook. If there wasn't news/music/content on the internet, you wouldn't pay to access it. The greatest trick the rent-seeking ISPs ever pulled it making you forget about the money you're paying them every month for shitty service and blaming Google when everything goes to hell.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:42 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


There's a great twitter thread here on how the failure of newspapers goes way beyond the ascent of FB & Google. Odd that no one mentioned Craigslist, which did more to kill newspapers than FB or Google ever did.
posted by GuyZero at 3:16 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]


The problem is - how do you pay that nickel?

Supporting Fast Payments for All – and Economic Freedom
posted by kliuless at 11:56 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]


Flattr is one company that's trying to make it easy for people to distribute micropayments to the sites they visit. I don't know much more about the company than that, but I like their overall approach. An internet where, say, 10% of what people pay to ISPs was automatically distributed to creators through that kind of user-directed micropayment service would be a much better internet.
posted by Kilter at 10:00 AM on January 26 [2 favorites]


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