Should The Big Tech Companies Voluntarily Fund The Journalism Business?

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.

Filed Under: funding, journalism, misinformation, sustainability
Companies: facebook, google


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 3:59pm

    Masnick, I agree but for reasons I didn't see listed here.
    I think any funding of journalism should also be tied to the quality (was the article fact checked, does it provide links about related topics, etc). If I were responsible for a corporation, I would not want to be seen as funding too low of quality anything, journalism especially. However this obviously ties into a basic conflict of interest when the journalism touches on the company funding it.

    Further more, corporations are not exactly like individuals, and their relationships do not evolve in quite the same way. I think any exchange of money should not be based on donation. It should be a mutual exchange. Otherwise you've created a highly unstable relationship that will collapse at the slightest perturbation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 4:19pm

    They already fund it. The tools and products they offer have expanded journalism further than it's been ever in human history.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 22 Nov 2019 @ 7:33am

      Re:

      I think if the newspapers, etc., are so intent on sharing in the success of tech companies, why not buy shares in them? That way they share in the profits without trying to "fine" them for using links and snippets in an aggregator.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Nov 2019 @ 7:24am

        Re: Re:

        "I think if the newspapers, etc., are so intent on sharing in the success of tech companies, why not buy shares in them?"

        First of all Historically newspapers are owned by large media conglomerates - who in turn have always been completely inept at anything technological. You only have to look at the unholy mess which resulted in Time Warner Cable which ended up in a feud with it's parent company almost instantly.

        Most ISP's - who need to operate in a way so as to further communication between all it's customers - have a business model, after all, which is in fundamental opposition to media companies who rely on being able to restrict communication.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 4:26pm

    "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."

    Everything is me, today. No one thinks long term. This includes the advertisers.

    "The eyes are at Facebook, lets spend our ad dollars there."
    Where do the stories come from? Where will the stories come from?

    How many people, just from one city, would one have to "follow" in order to ensure they heard all relevant news from that city?

    These are things advertisers need to be thinking about, not "big tech."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 4:57pm

    Journalism has alway been funded to serve private interests

    Last decade has just revealed it more obviously than at any other time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 5:28pm

      Re: Journalism has alway been funded to serve private interests

      Well it is either private interest or public interest - which has included both the relatively reputable BBC and every laughably false state run propaganda outlet.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 5:57pm

    "...full of disinformation, fraud and abuse."

    Sounds like a lot of advertising itself.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 6:16pm

      Re: "...full of disinformation, fraud and abuse."

      Yeah, but you don't want your sketchy mindfuck attached to some YouTube video of different sketchy mindfuck. It probably more than doubles the chances that your ad products are differently-ideologically or critically thinked at.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 6:33pm

    This doesn't seem like much of a new idea, in many ways it looks like exactly what happened the last time the news industry met major disruption.

    When the telegraph turned the provision of news into an international product, a huge number of journalism organizations found themselves perennially unprofitable. Very few could afford to collect all the news that their readers were interested in getting. The result was the introduction of the news wire agencies (Associated Press, United Press Association, Reuters, Agence France-Presse...), to which those journalism organizations outsourced the procurement of news. While the largest news organizations (NY Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, etc.) continued to procure some of their news stories themselves, the vast majority ended up turning into little more than distribution companies, repackaging news collected by the press agencies, perhaps with some local news thrown in for flavor.

    The introduction of the television breathed some new life into news organizations, as the repackaging required for audio-visual content was more valuable, but it did little to address the underlying problem and ultimately the broadcast news companies fell into the same pattern of repackaging and distributing the findings of AP and Reuters.

    That is to say, in many ways the "failing" news companies of today are not news companies at all... they are distributors. And so when some new distributors show up on the scene leveraging a new mode of distribution, the old distributors suddenly find themselves out of a job.

    Meanwhile, those news companies which maintained a strong journalism base (NY Times et al.) are, while not as successful as they have been in the past, still plodding along without too much of an issue. Some pains, but no existential crises.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 5:02am

      Re:

      "That is to say, in many ways the "failing" news companies of today are not news companies at all... they are distributors. And so when some new distributors show up on the scene leveraging a new mode of distribution, the old distributors suddenly find themselves out of a job."

      As a reponse to which the old news distributors now demand a cut of the action and middleman status, hence their incessant begging and whining towards online platforms, primarily Google.

      Such a class act they've become.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 7:04pm

    Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

    If I were studying journalism in college, I would love to establish my reputation with some local stories that people need to read about. Your biggest return on investment would come from funding local college journalism aimed at local stories.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 7:16pm

      Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

      Although I am saddened about the state of certain parts of the bill of rights, one great thing is no one gets to control what is acceptable as journalism beyond some very minimal standards.

      In the US all you need to be a journalist is a keyboard or a pen and a very minimal amount of human decency.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 10:43pm

        Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

        one great thing is no one gets to control what is acceptable as journalism beyond some very minimal standards

        The problem with that is you end up with narratives that don't agree with your desire perspectives, which is why established groups have been going out of their way to disqualify others they consider to be lesser humans.

        It's why John Smith (when he was posting under his "Whatever" pseudonym) complained about the mobile phone access of civilians, and their dastardly ability to film footage of cops doing work like shooting naked people in the back.

        And also why antidirt, Richard Bennett, et al mock Masnick for not being a "journalist" like it's supposed to be some magical "I win"-button gotcha.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 5:07am

        Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

        "In the US all you need to be a journalist is a keyboard or a pen and a very minimal amount of human decency."

        And alas the human decency bit is entirely optional. "Journalist" is not a protected title.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 6:08am

          Re: Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

          You can still be sued out of existence or locked up if you don't adhere to minimal standards.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Nov 2019 @ 7:29am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleg

            "You can still be sued out of existence or locked up if you don't adhere to minimal standards."

            Only if you violate libel/slander laws or perform actual criminal activity however.

            If you pretend you are a doctor without having an official doctorate you may get arrested whether or not you tried to practice medicine.

            If you say you are a journalist then no one can claim you aren't.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2019 @ 10:50am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local co

              You can pretend to have a doctorate. You can even pretend to have a MD which is a doctorate in the medical field.

              You just can't pretend to be licensed by the government to practice medicine when you are not.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Nov 2019 @ 1:31am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by loca

                Depends on the jurisdiction.

                Normally the clincher is whether you are actively practicing your occupation. Saying you are an MD even if untrue may be legal in most jurisdictions but you're still wide open to civil suits and fraud charges as soon as you open your mouth and advise in your capacity as a "doctor". Basically in just assuming the title you also assume a lot of liability.

                It's generally unwise to pretend you hold a protected title if you actually don't. Whether you actively practice the occupation or not.

                The same does not hold for "journalists" which is a title only the person to call themselves that can validate.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 9:27am

      Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        bob, 22 Nov 2019 @ 3:51pm

        Re: Re: Local Journalism could be filled by local colleges

        Except you have other small towns without a local college who still wouldnt have anyone reporting on news in that area.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 8:23pm

    Should Unethical Tech Companies Fund Fake News?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 8:40pm

      Re: Should Unethical Tech Companies Fund Fake News?

      You could try to get twitter to kick some fake news artists off but someone will probably scream at you about bias for years if you do.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 8:56pm

      Re:

      You know, Hamiton, it usually helps to key in your garbage in the text field before hitting enter like a frantic Skinner mouse experiment.

      I mean, I appreciate the fact that I don't have to actually read your tripe, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't your intention.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      christenson, 21 Nov 2019 @ 6:03am

      Re: Should Unethical Tech Companies Fund Fake News?

      That's a brilliant flash of insight, even if it's Hamilton!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Nov 2019 @ 10:58pm

    One man's misinformation is another man's religion

    "Fake News" is a round hole and Journalism is a square peg.

    Even free of advertising dollars, journalism will never be the correct tool for the job. Journalism is not science. Fact checking a news article is not the way to embed the truth in the brains of voters.

    Social science tells us the people recall what they heard as true & double down in the face of a retraction.

    No amount of facts-checking of Trump quotes will stop journalists from (quickly) decimating what POTUS says as "news" and "information". And no amount of (slow) retractions will cause their audience to un-read & un-remember the assertions that were made and trumpeted via any medium.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 12:59am

    "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?"

    Any actual news funded by these organisation would be decried as "fake news" by those who dislike it even more than they do now. You have a situation where the President has a public feud with the Washington Post, largely because it's owned by Jeff Bezos. I don't see how public acceptance of quality journalism will be driven by other tech majors joining in, even if they actually avoid the temptation to use their money to direct the outcome of investigations (and some will obviously try at some point).

    The fundamental problem is the same as it's always been - undereducated, intellectually incurious people get their news from soundbites and headlines instead of real in-depth journalism. Funding more real journalism won't force those people to consume it. There has been real journalism in the UK for decades, for example, yet more people chose to get their news from the source with a topless teenager on page 3 than the ones doing that stuff.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Federico (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 1:04am

    Corrupt patronage

    Google already threw hundreds of millions to the big news orgs:
    https://newsinitiative.withgoogle.com/about/

    Curiously, the same newspapers call everyone else a Google shill if they're selling a service to Google (e.g. advertising space or Google-by-default position on their software), but were perfectly fine getting free money from it. Anyway.

    As already noted by others, there's nothing new about asking corporations to fund permanently unprofitable media. There's also no need to invent anything new for central funding: there are plenty of examples of the state giving subsidies to the media, and raising taxes at the scale required is not rocket science: taxation + democratic distribution may be inefficient, but at least it can be designed to be reasonably fair.

    One interesting experiment is Canada giving 50 M$ to local newspapers to produce news under an (unfree) Creative Commons license:
    http://www.michaelgeist.ca/2018/11/ccnewscontent/

    That seems something the USA could easily replicate (if Sinclair hasn't already bought and shut down all local news).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Calvin (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 1:27am

    Why should successful companies fund failing ones

    Was the motor industry asked to fund the buggy- whip makers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Nov 2019 @ 7:36am

      Re: Why should successful companies fund failing ones

      "Was the motor industry asked to fund the buggy- whip makers?"

      In a way, yes.

      Google "red flag act wiki".

      The stage coach änd train industries felt so threatened by the automotive industry they lobbied for, and received legislation which in 1865 mandated that no motor vehicle was allowed to traverse a public road with less than three operators. A Machinist, a driver, and a man who had to WALK in front of the vehicle while waving a red flag.

      Not "funding", per se, but they were certainly ordered to be noncompetitive.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 4:30am

    Going down the stages of grief

    The dying newspaper industry is moving from step 2: "Anger" to step 3: "Bargaining."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    christenson, 21 Nov 2019 @ 6:13am

    Incentive structure

    "Public Interest" (as commonly understood) is not sufficient to sustain journalism.

    We used to have a limited market (only so many TV stations, only so many newspapers) in which advertisers had incentives to appear in "better" outlets. That's gone and the monopoly rents the advertisers were paying is gone.

    So what invisible hand can we install to push people in the news market towards "good journalism"??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Federico (profile), 21 Nov 2019 @ 7:13am

    Mapping Digital Media: Global Findings

    Found by chance today:
    «Other findings were less foreseeable: digitization has brought no pressure to reform state broadcasters, less than one-third of countries found that digital media have helped to expand the social impact of investigative journalism, and digitization has not significantly affected total news diversity.»
    https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/mapping-digital-media-global-findin gs

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 8:01am

    Classic rent-seeking behavior from another monopolistic industry that has failed to adapt. They can never just fade away with their dignity intact.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Peter Lapham, 21 Nov 2019 @ 10:29am

    Great article and update

    Spot on great effort . last hope for dying journalism :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bob, 21 Nov 2019 @ 12:33pm

    short answer to your title question

    No, it shouldn't be a requirement. Yes, it would be awesome if they did voluntarily fund an idependent journalism team. Do I expect it to happen, no. And if it does happen it will only work for a while until the team writes negative press about the funding source.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 2:35pm

    This joke summarizes my opinion of that.

    I could say no but Im afraid I will have my name on every paper about how I’m a russian spy hate journalist and kick puppies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2019 @ 3:14pm

    Wouldn't it be great--Cosmic Justice-level great--if the big tech companies started funding potentially-high-quality, nimble news-distributor startups to compete with the whining pigopolists?

    That would steam their clams, eat them for lunch, and stomp the shells into caliche.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bobob, 21 Nov 2019 @ 11:02pm

    No, big tech companies should not fund jounalism. How much objectivity is ever present when lots of money is involved? (This is not much different than when Novartis tried to fund the UC Berkeley biology department 20 years ago or when the NEJM decided to take advertisements. The first fizzled after a backlash and the second diminished the credibility of the NEJM.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 22 Nov 2019 @ 7:35am

      Re:

      Indeed. I think it was The Times that failed to do any due dilligence on HSBC - a major advertiser. It just ignored all negative stories about it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Nov 2019 @ 5:05am

    Ah another libertarian circlejerk article. So facebook and google control how much of the advertising on the internet? Are amp articles generating revenue for these companies?

    You consistently lie about how damaging google and facebook are with regards to the market share they control and dictate due to their size.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.