from the probably-not dept
There have been plenty of stories that have made the rounds over the years arguing that Google/Facebook have “killed” the journalism business by sucking up all the advertising revenue. In the past, I’ve pointed out how silly and tiresome this argument can be, and certainly looking through the data, it simply does not support the narrative. Instead, it appears that the success of Google and Facebook is much more a scapegoat for the legacy news business’ own failure to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace — one in which their previous competitive advantage (limited competition within a geographical region) was completely eroded.
That said, even understanding that properly doesn’t answer the question of how one can actually save the journalism business, which has faced a huge variety of challenges over the last couple of decades. Lydia Polgreen, writing for the Guardian, has an interesting proposal that argues that the big internet platforms can both save journalism and deal with their big misinformation problems in one single move, by throwing a huge sum of money at journalism organizations. Among other things, she compares the rise of misinformation and the collapse of journalism to the impacts of industrial pollution, and suggests that internet companies could create a parallel to how businesses have now begun focusing on sustainability programs regarding environmental impact. Except, instead of dealing with things like carbon emissions, they could help deal with the pollution of misinformation via funding journalism efforts:
Just as companies decarbonize their businesses, they should think carefully about how they contribute to the destruction of our information ecosystem and choose to reach consumers on platforms that slow rather than increase the pace of information ecosystem collapse.
I am not suggesting anyone must immediately abandon Facebook or Google advertising platforms. But I do propose an experiment. What if the chief marketing officer of every major corporation set aside a substantial chunk of their marketing budget and devoted it to high-quality news? Of the $130bn devoted to digital advertising, set $50bn aside for news.
She argues that both the platforms and their advertisers might benefit from this sort of program:
Advertisers love these platforms for the same reason industrialists love carbon-based energy: it provides powerful, measurable fuel for their businesses. But increasingly they are becoming wary of these platforms because they are full of disinformation, fraud and abuse. Just as companies are weaning themselves from substances that pollute our air, water and lands, companies should wean themselves from platforms that are destroying our information ecosystem. It’s just good business.
I’m not convinced that equation adds up as neatly as Polgreen thinks, though — and I’m certainly not convinced that there’s a direct correlation between funding more journalism and ending disinformation. They may be loosely related, but the willingness of many to simply buy into mis- and disinformation suggests something more fundamental at stake.
As someone who runs a company that has a foot squarely planted in the journalism space, the business side of my job responsibilities certainly would love to see a massive, many-billion dollar pot appear out of thin air to fund more journalism. However, I still would worry about the downstream consequences of such a fund. For all the (often misleading or misunderstood) talk about how some of these tech giants “fund” various projects, and how that biases them, wouldn’t this just set off that concern at a much, much higher level? Would people be confident that there would be valuable investigative journalism about the tech giants if those companies held the keys to a $50 billion pot of gold? I think there would be reasonable concerns about the incentive structure. Along those lines, there would be similar concerns just in determining who gets access to those funds. Who chooses? And if you think the fights about “bias” are bad now, just wait until “pick ideological news source of your choice” doesn’t get any of the funding, or gets a smaller amount than a rival news source with a different ideological basis.
Now, it’s entirely possible that some of this could be sorted out. You can sketch out plans for some sort of “independent foundation” that would make the decisions, with some sort of guarantees that keep it free from interference over a long period of time.
But, my biggest concern about such a plan is that it is fundamentally a band-aid to cover up a wound, rather than looking for a true, sustainable solution to funding journalism as a whole. Indeed, this entire plan seems premised on the idea that the big tech companies of today are locked in place, and will continue being the big tech companies of the future. What’s the mechanism for the next big tech companies to be pressured into joining this effort? And what happens when — inevitably — some of the companies start to falter. What’s the mechanism for them to remove themselves from coughing up a huge chunk of their revenue to journalism?
While this is a different and ambitious plan, it seems to create many more questions than it answers and, most importantly, does little to deal with the fundamental and structural issues that have knocked the foundation out from under traditional journalism funding.