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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Hey Facebook and Google: The stakes are high. You in or out?

January 18, 2018 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

“I don’t trust Facebook.”

“At this point, I start from a position of distrust in dealing with Facebook as a company.”

Regrettably, I found myself sharing these thoughts last Friday with reporters who were working around the clock to process the latest Facebook news. And I’m not alone. Even the most trusting publishers have gone from giving Facebook the benefit of the doubt when they rolled out Instant Articles a few years ago, to a “prove it” mentality today.

This is unfortunate considering the power and influence that Facebook has on our lives. Like it or not, Facebook is effectively the largest public square where nearly two billion people around the world gather to exchange information. And there is certainly merit to the argument that the world benefits from the success of Facebook’s experiment to create an open and connected world.

So, what changed?

Business as Usual

Ben Thompson wonderfully captured the heart of the question several years ago, “Even if Zuckerberg is right, is there anyone who believes that a private company run by an unaccountable all-powerful person that tracks your every move for the purpose of selling advertising is the best possible form said global governance should take?”

Our industry is at an important crossroads. In many ways, the Facebook announcement to reorder News Feed priorities isn’t very different from Google’s early shifts and changes (remember Panda?). Many times search engines have been more impactful to the finances of publishers than anything a publisher could control directly. But really, despite some early utopian proclamations, these platforms are just doing business as usual. They lean in heavily to innovation that aligns with their own business interests and has a positive product outcome while slow-walking anything that creates risk to their own financial interests. Why wouldn’t they?

Yesterday, I sent an email to the members of DCN that was quite critical of Facebook. Implicit in my concern is the parallel that can be drawn to Google (something I highlighted in a Washington Post op-ed last October). These two companies are the front door to information for billions of people. So, when they make a tweak or announce a significant shift, the entire information industry needs to pay close attention.

We are paying attention.

Moonshots, Money and Responsibility

Unlike business as usual, “moonshots” are intended to drive real break-throughs that go beyond the horizon of the more cautious bets constrained to basic organizational needs or that don’t inject risk into the cash cows. Last November, we asked Google and Facebook for moonshot-level thinking and initiative to address the fake news and other garbage flowing through their platforms. Yes, the fake news was starting to erode the solid foundation our members’ business is built upon. But the problems go well beyond business. The issues in play resonate deeply through our society.

To put it bluntly, both companies have failed to step up to the task. As a result, there are increasing levels of tension in the press, in Washington, and in Brussels as this distrust spreads. And this isn’t good for anyone.

There are two platform pressures that work against trusted publishers and, importantly, public interest:

  1. Platforms are biased towards solving problems for the lowest-common denominator “publisher” so the solutions can be applied to the wider web. This often creates collateral damage for publishers playing the long game – cultivating brand and engaging customers – and not just focused on immediate financial gain. We’re seeing the impact now as Google attempts to solve for ad blocking or how the industry has dealt with measurement issues.
  2. Platforms also have incredible growth expectations, as they really have one goal to surpass Apple as the most valuable company on the planet. These revenue and profit obligations create an inherent bias toward their own products. In fact, the European Commission already found Google guilty of this. Facebook will always drive consumer intent and publisher interests to the most profitable outcomes. This is why video was Facebook’s #1 priority last year. And now it’s not.

There are also two big issues that affect the entire ecosystem and, importantly, public interest:

  1. Americans don’t trust “the media.” In fact, they trust it less and less each day. The research says they do appropriately trust many of our members and the journalists and creatives they employ. However, what Americans think of as “the media” continues to change and now includes platforms, distributors, advertising technologies, artists, advertisers, and publisher brands. And the public doesn’t separate or even understand where the buck stops with each. Every ounce of research I’ve seen shows that more and more consumers are going to places like Google, YouTube, and Facebook to get their news and information despite trusting these platforms significantly less than other outlets. This distrust in platforms and ad technologies extends into the media at large.
  2. Facebook and Google are the two most significant sources of traffic to publishers. Facebook drives about 17% of the inbound visits to DCN members; Both companies share less than 1% of their revenue with DCN members. They are very important for the discovery of news and entertainment. Yet they feel it is very unimportant to pay for the creation of it.

These gaps aren’t going to be closed through hearings in Washington. They’re also not going to be closed by walking away from dialogue. Ultimately, we need major platforms to decide that moonshots matter and be both humble enough and comfortable enough with their own vulnerabilities to work with publishers and academics on solutions. I don’t see that happening yet but I believe that we’ll get there in time. It’s just that important.

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