Rescue from the Facebook whale

by
05 January 2018

Social media dominate the landscape — but journalism still has a future, says Andrew Brown

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Less demand for good journalism: although a few titles buck the trend

Less demand for good journalism: although a few titles buck the trend

THE quickest way to understand the state of the journalism business today is to consider the story of St Brendan and the whale. The saint and his companions sailed to America in a coracle, and, on the way, stopped at an island to eat. But, when they built a fire, the island quivered, then submerged: it had all along been an enormous whale.

Imagine, then, that the news business is populated by saints — not, perhaps, harder than believing that a coracle can reach America from Ireland. For the past decade, the coracles of the news business have been crossing a storm-lashed ocean in search of the promised land of digital profitability. In 2016, two developments showed that that they were the coracle, and Facebook was the whale.

 

THE one we were expecting, at least in part, was the collapse of the print advertising market. Display advertisements in print were the last bit of the old newspaper model which worked. The news that, in 2018, the Mail Online will make more from digital advertising than the paper versions will make from print is terrible: 84 per cent of the growth in digital advertising has gone to the duopoly of Facebook and Google; so what is left is a tiny sliver.

It was not just traditional newspapers that believed that they could make fortunes — or even stay solvent — from ad-funded digital journalism. In the past five years, much venture capital backed purely digital news operations such as Buzzfeed and Vox. Some of the work done by some of the new sites, especially Buzzfeed, was excellent.

But, in 2017, we watched that wave recede as well: Buzzfeed laid off 100 people in the United States, and nearly 50 — one third of the staff — in the UK. Other sites “pivoted to video”, which is a euphemism for sacking all the writers so that you can lose money on YouTube instead.

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FACEBOOK did not just eat all the advertising that third parties used to put through the press. It also consumed the other benefit that newspapers once offered their owners: advertising their own pet causes, or propaganda.

The big story here was, of course, the use of targeted ads to swing both the election of President Trump and the Brexit referendum. What actually happened may never be entirely known, and it is certainly not in Facebook’s interest to co-operate with researchers; so it doesn’t. Either the influence of Facebook advertising was decisive, in which case democracies are going to have to rewrite their rules to defend against it; or it was nugatory, and, in that case, all its vast fortunes are founded on bluff, and microtargeted advertising does not really work.

At the same time, Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) provided millions of users with a sense of unfiltered intimacy with celebrities, who could now employ their image managers directly rather than going through the ones employed by media companies.

This worked to the immense advantage of President Trump over the years. Of course, his feed is repulsive and ridiculous to outsiders, but that merely cements its attraction for the believers, who know that they are reviled for their faith.

So, the third way in which social media have overtaken the traditional press is that they are much better at excluding opposing voices. When I bought newspapers from a stand, I was at least aware of the front pages of papers I disagreed with. On Twitter or Facebook, I need never see anything that will disturb me, or make me think.

 

THIS leaves one enormous market for traditional news operations: the hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people who are scandalised by what has happened to the public sphere. They might pay for the content that advertising no longer will.

There are some signs this is happening. The Economist and the FT are both profitable from within paywalls. The New York Times made $86 million from digital subscriptions in the third quarter of last year, which is nearly half as much again as it made that time the previous year. The Guardian is betting a lot on its membership scheme, which is a kind of voluntary subscription, and claims to be on track with it.

Such readers will never be a majority of digital consumers. One of the clearest lessons of the media economy is that people care about truth only when they will make decisions on its basis. The powerless prefer circuses with their bread rations, which is sensible enough when better information won’t improve their lives.

But the demand for good journalism will never entirely vanish, and I think that in the next year or two it may actually increase. In the end, it is something at least as much affected by politics as economics. Even the most expensive daily paper still costs less than a cup of chain coffee. Which does more for you?

 

Andrew Brown writes for The Guardian and is the Church Times press columnist

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