Who Owns the News Consumer: Social Media Platforms or Publishers?
The first round of PnP research.
The relationship between news organizations and platform companies has become far closer far more quickly than anyone predicted. The increasing influence of a handful of West Coast companies is shaping every aspect of news production, distribution, and monetization.
In the past 18 months, companies including Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Snapchat, and Google have moved from having an arm’s length relationship with journalism to being dominant forces in the news ecosystem. By encouraging news publishers to post directly onto new channels, such as Facebook Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover, tech companies are now actively involved in every aspect of journalism.
At the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, we have conducted the first research aimed at evaluating how newsrooms are adapting to the rising influence of technology companies. We found that some platforms are becoming publishers, either by design or by default.
Publishers, meanwhile, are experiencing a more rapid than expected shift in distribution towards platforms. In the research, newsroom personnel at every level expressed anxiety about loss of control over the destination of stories, the power of their brand, and their outlets’ relationship with the viewer or reader.
Many acknowledged that technology companies are, for some newsrooms, a potential lifeline. Individuals within news organizations felt they lacked the resources or expertise to create the level of innovation and access to new audiences that social media and platform companies offer.
But there are critical issues of democratic and civic concern that have little visibility or priority, either within news organizations or platforms.
We found that:
- Publishers are posting an ever-increasing volume of stories directly to many different platforms, but with little insight as yet into what the long term effects might be.
- Some platforms and publishers have a very close relationship, with some platforms providing equipment or financial incentives to publishers that use their tools. At least one platform even requires publishers to pay it a percentage of ad revenue in exchange for using the platform.
- Scale matters. Some smaller and local newsrooms feel left out, whilst the larger or “more digital” publishers that have the closest relationships with platforms dominate attention.
- Publishers’ anxieties include a lack of data, loss of control, the uncertainty of financial return, and the potential obscurity of their brand in a distributed environment.
- The question of who owns the user highlights the biggest tension at the heart of the relationship between publishers and platforms. Is a reader of The New York Times on Facebook a New York Times reader, or a Facebook user reading the New York Times?
- Civic and democratic issues not prioritised by either publishers or platforms include archiving distributed journalism, transparency in algorithmic distribution, concentration of power, and availability of data.