As the sharing of false or misleading “news reports” on social media has become a global issue, after accusations that Russia tried to influence votes in the United States, Britain and France, technology companies like Facebook and Twitter have been hit with considerable criticism about their impact on society and on the journalism industry, according to the latest Journalism, Media and Technology Trends report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Online platforms like Facebook are growing increasingly wary of potential reputational damage in the fake news debate, with fact checking, news literacy, and transparency initiatives unable to stem the tide of misinformation and low trust.
U.S. lawmakers meanwhile have held hearings on the role of social media in elections, and Facebook in January widened its investigation into the campaign leading up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership.
While these investigations into misinformation and the role of platforms have intensified, they have so far led to little concrete action other than new rules for election-based advertising in some countries.
Germany is an exception, with tough new rules requiring social media platforms to remove hate speech on their platform within seven days or face fines of up to 50 million euros. As a result, Facebook doubled the staff monitoring its content.
The Reuters Institute report predicts that this year Facebook and Google will be regularly accused of censorship after removing content that they feel might leave them open to fines.
Facebook was already forced into a major turnaround. In January, the social media giant announced changes to the News Feed, the main source of its revenue, and acknowledged that social media can sometimes be bad for its users and for democracy.
Mark Zuckerberg declared Facebook would change its algorithm to promote more personal content rather than news. Other changes to the News Feed include a plan to ask users which media outlets they recognize and trust, and to use the feedback to show trusted outlets more often.
Facebook warned it cannot guarantee that social media are, on balance, good for democracy, but the company vowed to prevent in the future the alleged meddling in elections by Russia or any other actors.
In a blog post discussing the issue, Samidh Chakrabarti, a Facebook product manager, wrote, “I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t.”
Facebook has a “moral duty,” he said, “to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.”
On the whole, the company should have done better, Chakrabarti conceded, but noted that Facebook has moved to disabling suspect accounts, requiring those running election ads to confirm their identities and making election ads visible outside of the targeted audience.
Twitter, Google and YouTube have followed suit with similar self-regulatory measures.
Yet traditional news organizations are severing ties with these platforms, because they are struggling to make money from their partnerships with tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat.
Facebook’s Instant Articles, which were initially marketed as a publishing game-changer, still lack the monetization opportunities sought by news outlets.
Publishers found they were making less money from Instant Articles than from content on their own website, given the inability to insert display advertisements to these stories. Until last year, Facebook also did not allow the embedding of paid subscription sign-ups or other ways to enforce a paywall to the articles to convert readers into paying subscribers, an element that is a growing source of revenue for media organizations.
As a result, major publishers like the New York Times started to cut back the amount of content they push to the Instant Articles platform.
Almost half of publishers (44 percent) surveyed for the Reuters Institute report say they are increasingly concerned with the power and influence that the tech platforms wield. Only 7 percent are less worried than last year.
But not all electronic platforms are viewed equally as more publishers feel negatively towards Facebook and Snapchat than about Twitter and Google.
Ben de Pear, editor at the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, says 2018 is a crucial year in the battle for the future of journalism. “After years of ‘disruption,’ will the digital platforms really act on the emergency they have created, which has brought about a devaluation in the profession of journalism and a collapse of trust in media organizations and what they report?” he asks in the Reuters Institute report.
At the same time, media organizations are aware that they are also responsible for their own ongoing struggles. Rather than blame platforms, publishers identify internal factors (36 percent) such as resistance to change and failure to innovate as important causes.
Changing business models
The further breaking down of advertising revenue streams and insufficient monetization from online platforms have resulted in a mixed year for media organizations.
Stronger titles like the Washington Post and the New York Times led the way in growing their subscriber base. The New York Times now has 2.3 million digital subscribers and the Washington Post doubled its subscribers last year to 1 million. And the Guardian in the U.K. reported 800,000 paying customer, including half a million subscribers and 300,000 one-off donations. This meant, for the first time, the Guardian attracted more revenue directly from readers than from advertisers.
However, many smaller news organizations faltered as the shift in reader revenue did not work for every type of media business.
“In that regard, perhaps the least surprising development of the year was the poor business results of some online pure-play news, opinion, and entertainment websites,” the report said. “Heavily dependent on both online advertising and Facebook distribution, BuzzFeed and Vice were reported as missing revenue targets while tech and pop culture site Mashable was sold for a disappointing $50 million.”
A survey of digital leaders showed a clear view that advertising will become less important over time (62 percent), with one in 10 saying they are actively planning for a future with little or no display advertising.
This turnaround can be illustrated by adjacent display advertising, which worked well in print, but much less so on the desktop, and has become irrelevant on a mobile screen at a time when the news consumption on the cellphone is exceeding that in print and on computers.
Meanwhile, the supply and demand economics have driven down prices and ad-blocking has become much more effective on most devices. Most importantly, the big tech platforms are taking most of the new digital advertising revenue because they can target audiences more efficiently and at scale, the report noted.
As a result, the continued rapid decline in both print and digital advertising revenues will lead to growing “economic distress” this year, forcing publishers to look for new revenue streams.
Online, most publishers (44 percent) see subscriptions now as a very important source of digital revenue. This is a larger share than digital display advertising (38 percent) and branded and sponsored content (39 percent).
Membership, which is a regular fee paid by loyal users to keep the site free for all, was considered very important by 16 percent and one-off donations by 7 percent of the respondents.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of publishers pursues multiple revenue streams.
The drive towards paywall content, in particular, is not a one-size-fits-all model as it is mainly effective in richer jurisdictions like the U.S., Germany or Scandinavia, whereas publishers from Southern and Central Europe and from Asia and Latin America are recognizing the need but find it much harder to break their dependence on advertising.
“We need to build new streams of revenue, but we still do not have them. [There are] no serious examples of successful digital subscriptions in Spain, a country that does not have a strong model of paper subscriptions,” says an unnamed director general of a leading Spanish media group in the report.
Even those media companies that find it difficult to grow a paying subscriber list will attempt to turn anonymous users into registered users so that they can develop more personalized services and more loyal relationships.
U.K. publisher the Daily Telegraph for instance wants to reach 10 million registered readers. “A registered reader – as opposed to an anonymous one – is far more valuable to the business than the vast majority of our audience,” the Telegraph’s CEO, Nick Hugh, told the Reuters Institute.
The increasing economic pressure will inevitably lead to more consolidation, and fewer journalists, in the industry. Consultant Kevin Anderson notes “there are simply too many players chasing a limited audience and advertising pool to survive.”
The report concludes that although there is pressure on both technology platforms and media outlets, there is no sense that the technology revolution is slowing down. “If anything, it seems as if we are the beginning of a new phase of disruption.”
The use of artificial intelligence, as one example, could bring new opportunities for creativity and efficiency but also lead to greater misinformation and manipulation.
But almost three-quarters (72 percent) of publishers say they are planning to actively experiment with artificial intelligence to support content recommendations and drive production efficiency with the advent of “robo-journalism.”