Social media platforms are shadowing journalism, creating imminent threats for publishers and readers. This takeover has mainly gone unnoticed and unchecked in the public sphere. The news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past 500. Chat apps, news bots, virtual reality, video streaming and messaging have changed the way people receive and interact with the news.
These changes pose an enormous potential, but also existential risks. The Internet, on the one hand, helps journalists undertake important work; on the other hand, the web makes it difficult to earn a decent living.
The people who built these platform companies did not set out to do so to take over the responsibilities of a free press. In fact, they are rather alarmed that this is the outcome of their engineering success.
The abundance of information online and the mobile revolution have led people to rely on the Internet for almost everything. This leaves publishers with two significant risks: They have lost control of distribution, and social media platforms are becoming more powerful as they gain control of who sees what stories and how journalism is monetized.
Online platforms aren’t accountable for how they filter news and or what they make accessible to readers. They work outside antitrust laws and market dynamics. Readers spend the most online time with social media apps, particularly Facebook, which – like Snapchat – has launched a content channel. Facebook’s Instant Articles gives publishers more traffic, but the platform lacks transparency.
The critical balance between destination and distribution is probably the hardest investment decision traditional publishers have to make right now.
Publishing firms need to change their economic model. Some have their own apps, but they can’t match social media’s reach. Some publishers see subscriptions as a viable alternative, but they won’t make up for lost ad revenue. Publishers are considering sponsored content, with ads that look like articles and bypass ad blockers.
Publishers can reach a broad audience by posting directly to Facebook. Still, they’d lose their reader relationships, revenue stream and editorial processes, as well as distribution independence and would earn only fees. If this deep cultural, economic and political shift happens, platforms will have cherry-picked the profitable parts of journalism and avoided the more expensive task of producing content. Yet, publishers’ fate matters far less than readers’ quandary:
What kind of news and information society do you want?