Relationships matter. As humans, we diverge from acting out of self-interest to accommodate the people with whom we have relationships. This might mean little things like saying “thank you” or holding the door open for the person behind you. It could be bigger things like buying a birthday gift for a friend or helping a neighbor in need.
People make sacrifices every day for those they care about. And, in any kind of relationship, there is some level of accountability. If I am jerk to a grocery store clerk, the five minutes during checkout could be really awkward or that person might decide to double-charge me for an item. Being rude to my server is not likely to speed up my dinner order. If I’m inconsiderate of my wife, I will probably be miserable until I make amends. These sorts of simple relationship dynamics play out hundreds of times every day.
The relationship business
Commercial relationships have similar dynamics. From my perch at DCN, I see premium publishers working hard every day to earn the trust and loyalty of consumers. News organizations employ journalists, who investigate and check facts, and editors, who vet content and ensure rigorous standards are followed. If they mislead, they can be held accountable by under libel laws. If they fail to engage and inform, they lose traffic and advertisers or subscribers.
Movie companies hire directors and actors to create humor, drama, or horror to entertain consumers. If they don’t do so, their movies fail to draw at the box office, they command lower fees for other distribution channels. They lose money.
Whether it’s weather, health, sports, or financial information, publishers in every vertical and across every medium work hard to create quality, compelling consumer experiences. In all of these cases, the publisher’s brand is closely tied to the content because the publisher is trying to build a relationship. And, as with any successful relationship, trust and accountability are key to developing a deeper commercial relationship with people as well.
Some of the currently pressing public policy issues have arisen in areas where there is little accountability to consumers. One big example is Section 230. It was enacted into law in 1996, as part of the Communications Decency Act, when the burgeoning tech industry was a darling of all politicians. Things have changed dramatically since those halcyon days with multiple members on both sides of the aisle introducing legislation to overhaul or eliminate Section 230.
Ironically, Section 230 was intended to empower platform companies to take responsibility. Instead, this liability shield tends to be used mostly by companies who can’t or won’t take full responsibility for their services. Tech companies tend to use Section 230 to avoid taking action. Backpage was one of the highest profile examples. However, Facebook regularly invokes the legal protections to avoid responsibility for the toxic content flowing across its services.
It’s not a coincidence that news organizations are far less reliant on Section 230 than platforms, because they stand behind their content. Content is their calling card and if customers reject it, that relationship is over.
Consumer privacy is a hot topic these days because there are big tech companies building profiles about consumers behind the scenes with little transparency or accountability. From hyper-targeted advertising to potential discriminatory offerings, consumers are increasingly aware that they are being manipulated and their data is being used for myriad unexpected purposes.
Consumers have generally felt fine about their data being used within the context of a relationship with a company – e.g. ensuring the site or app loads properly on their device, remembering log-in information, or recommending new content. However, when data is used outside of that relationship, consumers react negatively. Hence, the blowback for Facebook around Cambridge Analytica. These public policy spats underscore a key difference between companies that have direct relationships with consumers versus those that are intermediaries. Direct relationships create accountability.
Building business with relationships
Accountability is an inherent part of direct relationships. That said, solid relationships provide opportunity as well.
The most visible sign of the power of direct consumer relationship is the growth of subscriptions. The New York Times and Netflix are notable success stories. However, hundreds of other media brands are finding loyal audiences that are more than willing to pay for premium content.
In addition, publishers with trusted brands are well-positioned to thrive in a world where privacy laws and tech controls increasingly restrict web-wide data surveillance. Whether it’s GDPR in Europe, CCPA and CPRA in California, or the handful of other states that are actively considering privacy laws, policymakers are trying to give consumers greater control. They seek to prevent the kind of unexpected data harvesting that happens outside of a consumer’s relationship with a company.
At the same time, key companies are rolling out privacy-friendly features. Apple built Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) into Safari and is preparing to unveil App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Both are designed to crack down on companies following consumers everywhere they go online. However, they do allow for tracking within a consumer’s direct relationship with a company.
Google announced that Chrome would follow the lead of every other major browser in blocking third-party cookies. To be clear, there are a lot of suspicions about whether Google might try to give itself preferential treatment here. But, at its core, it looks like a positive move toward consumer privacy.
Companies with direct, trusted relationships have an opportunity. This window of opportunity, especially for news providers, could not come at a more important time for publishers — and for our society. The news industry has taken a beating in the last decade or so as intermediaries aggregated publishers’ content and retargeted audiences. Big tech platforms incentivized scale over trust. On top of that, there has been a raging debate about the impact of platform-driven disinformation and algorithmic bias on our democracy.
Well-paid lobbyists for some big tech companies are actively working to deflect accountability. However, publishers are embracing the direct, trusted relationships (and the ensuing accountability) they enjoy with consumers. News organizations continue to produce and stand behind quality journalism – researched, fact-checked and vetted. Local news publishers are leaning into what has always made them unique – critical context and deep understanding – to serve their communities.
Strong relationships are built on open, honest, accountability. They are built on trust. For quality media brands, this is nothing but good news.
The demise of identifiers such as third-party cookies or Apple’s IDFA presents both challenges and opportunities for publishers. Some complain performance marketing will take a hit. This would force marketing teams to refocus on delivering product excellence and ditch bait-and-switch schemes that promised audiences better experiences than they delivered.
Others praise the advance of a more privacy-oriented approach to targeting that will finally prioritize consumer preference. They point to a “golden opportunity for a re-imagining of digital advertising.” Companies would reap the benefits of an ecosystem that isn’t tied to tracking a user’s every move, nor beholden to GAFA. Publishers who wisely embrace this worldview are also taking impressive steps to leverage their valuable direct relationships with audiences.
For some, including Vox Media, Condé Nast and, most recently, Penske Media, this means offering up their own first-party data directly to advertisers. For others, it means leaning further into digital subscriptions. Subscriptions offer publishers a proven monetization model in a post-pandemic environment that has seen digital advertising collapse and revenues driven by paid content rise through the roof.
But winning with a subscription model is hardly a walk in the park. This is more keenly felt at at time when marketing departments may need to spend more resources to collect and leverage customer data to clinch the sale
Driving conversions and convincing consumers to commit to a recurring cost for content demands publishers do their homework and innovate. They must build the capabilities to understand their audience, identify valuable users likely to take the plunge and define clear pricing (at the level subscribers are willing to pay). What’s more, they should muster the resources and resolve to develop, deliver and continually improve a great product that meets customer expectations.
Continuing with our series of video interviews, I talk to Sheri Bachstein, global head of IBM Watson Advertising and GM of The Weather Company. Bachstein has overseen a wildly successful pivot to paid as part of a larger move to diversify revenue at the IBM-owned property. Since launching a premium subscription offering just 18 months ago, The Weather Company counts nearly one million paid subscribers, a figure Bachstein says is seeing double-digit growth every quarter.
Bachstein shares her step-by-step journey to subscription success, including insights on tailoring the product to the consumer, targeting potential subscribers and building a winning customer service team. She also reveals her take on the future of advertising and a call to action for the media industry at large.
WATCH OR LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst of Mobile Groove interviews Sheri Bachstein, global head of IBM Watson Advertising and GM of The Weather Company:
Peggy Anne Salz: Does it pay to pivot from an ad-supported model to subscriptions? Well, my guest gives us the inside track on the strategy that has allowed subscriptions to become the fastest growing line of revenue in the company. It’s impressive. And we’re going to spotlight some of the step’s publishers can follow to diversify their revenue streams. But first, of course, a bit about us. I’m Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, tech consultant, frequent contributor to Digital Content Next, which as you know is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital companies globally.
And now to my guest, she is the Global Head of IBM Watson Advertising and The Weather Company. And The Weather Company is an IBM Business. It offers the most accurate actionable weather data insights to millions of consumers via digital products that we’ll be hearing more about from The Weather Channel, weather.com, as well as Weather Underground. And previously, she was the global head of the consumer business there and was responsible for product management and design, content development, and global expansion across the organization on the weather’s owned and operated properties. So Sheri Bachstein, welcome to Digital Content Next. It’s great to have you here.
Sheri Bachstein: Hi, Peggy. How are you?
Salz: Good. And even better because we’re going to zero in on, I think the question of the hour, the pivot. It’s a time of transition, accelerated change, and you’ve made a move. And I think a lot of publishers are thinking about this move, which is diversifying your business model, specifically ad-supported to subscription, as I said. In a nutshell, why the pivot, Sheri?
Bachstein: So we just found that we want to continue diversifying revenue, it’s really just that simple. You know, to have a business and if you have a bulk of your revenue coming from one stream, that’s dangerous, especially in changing times. And so we started on a diversification path, actually several years ago. And really subscriptions was the next thing in that funnel of what we’re trying to do to diversify.
Salz: I said at the top, it has paid off. I know the numbers. Our viewers don’t. So why don’t you share some of those numbers that show just how subscriptions are evolving?
Bachstein: Yeah, so our subscription business launched about 18 months ago. So I think we’re still just starting, I like to say, because I think that’s a short period of time, and we’ve rolled it out on our apps. And actually, just next week, we’ll be rolling it out on our web platform as well. But in a very short time, we are approaching a major milestone with a million users that are subscribers to our business, and you know, it’s taken other publishers twice as long to reach that volume. So we’re really pleased with the number of subscribers that we’re getting. And then if you look like our quarter-to-quarter growth of subscribers, it continues to be in the double digits. So every quarter bringing on more subscribers.
Salz: That is amazing because this is a time where you’re asking someone to commit to a recurring cost. But it must be that way because they’ve gotten the value proposition or rather, they grasp your value proposition. How important is the product in this mix?
Bachstein: It’s extremely important. It’s the foundation of a subscription business, you know, the value exchange you have with the consumer, very important. With subscriptions, I feel that value strengthens. You actually have higher expectations as a subscriber. I know I do in my own personal apps that I subscribe to. You have a higher expectation. So it’s really important that the product live up to that expectation and that your customer service, very important as well, that you’re able to connect with those consumers if they do have a problem and resolve that very quickly. So the value exchange is very important, whether you’re doing a subscription business or you’re actually doing an ad-supported business.
Salz: I do want to get to those steps, step by step so that publishers can benefit or at least think of a roadmap that they can be following as they make this shift from ad-supported to subscription. But let’s take just a step at a different perspective, just zoom out a little bit because another big question is not just how do I get more value out of my customers, my users, my readers, my audience, but also, what are we doing right now? Because pretty soon the way we do this marketing is going to change very drastically. So from your perspective, what are some of the ways that this shift from cookies and identifiers and toward privacy-first might actually represent an opportunity for publishers because you have certainly grasped that?
Bachstein: So I do agree Google does plan to deprecate the cookie, and so that will go away. But really, I think as it relates to identifiers, identifiers is a really broad word because there’s a lot of ways to identify someone. It could be an email, a lot of different data points. I don’t necessarily see identifiers going away. What I do see is how we use those identifiers is what’s changing. So what’s happening is we’re moving from a society where we had consumers opt-out to a society where we’re having them now opt-in. So that gives them more choice, more transparency upfront, and really the decision of how they want to share their data.
Consumers should have control of their data. So again, we’re really moving into an opt-out society as it relates to advertising and targeting and giving consumers that choice.
Salz: What can you share about what has worked for you and what maybe other publishers need to get right? Because one thing you’ve done is, for example, really focused on getting the product, right, as you said, but there are other aspects of it.
Bachstein: So first, we did exhaustive customer research and listening. We asked our customers, one, “Would you pay for a weather app?” That’s first and foremost and what percentage would. And then secondly, “Okay, if you paid for it, what are the features that you would pay for? What is it that you want?” So we really listened to our customers. And that’s the part of the plan, the product plan came from that. Then we did testing, we did learning, and we kept improving. So a lot of testing went into what’s the right price, you know, to charge for a subscription app?
Again, asking the consumers, “How much would you pay for this feature? So when I think about what are three tips I could give to fellow publishers because I think us helping each other is really important to protect the open web. First takeaway for me is get rid of those perceived inconveniences for your customers.
So for my customers, those that start their day with us, end their day with us looking for weather, some of those customers, they just want to get into the app, find out what their weather is and move on to plan their day, mornings are very busy for a lot of people. And so they felt that ads clutter their experience that it was in their way, so we removed them in the premium experience. So that’s one tip.
The second tip, trusted human expertise is highly valuable. So how can you humanize the information that you’re giving? So for us, you see all this weather data, but how do you give context to that? How do you humanize that weather data for those that want more in-depth coverage?
And so we’re working on that, how to humanize that. And really the third thing is really around what you said before, the product.
Salz: That is really interesting, Sheri. I mean, I know it makes sense to ask the users. I wouldn’t say I would ask the user about the price, but that is surprising because I’ve also read a lot of research that we are actually more willing to pay a price that is higher than even, in many cases, the app developers, the companies themselves would charge. So it does make sense.
The humanizing of the information, now that is intriguing. Is that saying that you tap a team of writers, of journalists, of experts and trying to get that into the app? Because I think our publishers would be really interested in this at a time when, yes, we can automate a lot. And we’ll get to that in a moment. But this human part doesn’t seem to be something that you can automate or in any way streamline. This is roll up your sleeves, get down to work. How are you doing it?
Bachstein: Yeah. So for us, obviously, we’re unique in the weather space. But we do have some consumers that they want more information. So they want a meteorologist to explain, why is an outbreak of tornadoes actually happening? We actually are doing a test right now and we’re using Twitter to do the test where we had a meteorologist create a very short video that really explained how we forecast a tornado, what are the three elements that we look for in forecasting a tornado and describe it so people could see better like on a radar map those areas that may be under a tornado threat. And the response has been great. For those people who like to geek out on weather, they love having that extra information.
And news organizations could do it as well because you have journalists like yourself that have amazing expertise. And how do you take that story, just one level deeper, to really dig in with your consumers around more information that they might want? So almost, probably, getting into some debate, I would imagine, in the news world. So I think there’s ways to do that. But I think, for some, it might be easier than others. But you’re right, it’s something that’s unique. It’s not something I would say that can scale to millions. But if it’s a unique offering, someone’s really willing to pay for it, you could probably get a premium for that.
Salz: Exactly. And that’s the point because subscribers are the valuable users. They’re willing to pay. They’re worth customizing to. Interestingly enough, they also leave a very interesting data trail. They’re frequently engaging with the app or service. They show behavior patterns like no other. That’s why they are the valuable users. What are some early signs for you of a high-value user so that we can also help other publishers focus their efforts and investments?
Bachstein: So we are doing a couple things to really help target who are those consumers that want to be subscribers? One of the things that we’re doing is around propensity modeling. So who are those subscribers that really have an interest in a more premium experience? And so we’re looking at that, we’re using machine learning to do that. We didn’t do it in the early days. We kind of had this one blanket promotion that we did. And we learned a lot from it. Again, it’s that test and learn. And then we learned, “Well, we really need to just focus on these consumers that would be interested in this.”
Same thing that you do in advertising, right? The whole premise around understanding the consumer by the data that they share is so a brand can connect with the consumer. And that’s what publishers do, they bring the two together. So that same type of targeting information is important as you do a subscription business.
Salz: And you’ve leveraged AI to create a more compelling product as I understand it. What has actually worked for you? I mean, you’re lucky, you’re sitting on the source with your AI abilities within Watson, but what has worked for you?
Bachstein: So the propensity modeling I just spoke of, we’re just rolling that out so we can better target the right consumers so we’re not burdening people seeing our promotions who aren’t interested. So that improves the experience. But the other thing that we did is on the IBM Watson advertising side, which is the other part of my business, we’ve created ad-tech solutions rooted in Watson AI.
One of those solutions is a predictive real-time dynamic, creative solution. So I actually took that tech and used it on the publishing side, I’ve got to use my own products, to drive subscriptions. So what that really did was it enables you to create a lot of variations of an ad. So you put in a few images, call to action, and then using AI, it’ll target consumers differently based on what we can learn about them with the information that they share or their behaviors.
And it’s been an amazing tool for us. We actually did a test by using that ad tech. We got three times the number of subscribers than when we just did a normal promo doing it manually on our own.
And so it’s really been beneficial to use AI because you can put all of this data in there. It does the work for you and delivers amazing results. And frankly, we offer that ad-tech to everyone. Any publisher can use it, any DSP, SSP. So we are creating open ad-tech solutions that can drive business for a marketer or brand or it can help a publisher increase their subscription business or even their loyalty programs.
Salz: That is really interesting because dynamic. That’s the key here. It needs to adapt to the users. And actually, publishers need to adapt to this as well. So you’ve also called for industry-wide collaboration on privacy initiatives as we move into our cookieless future. Why is it important for publishers to be a part of those conversations?
Bachstein: It’s extremely important for actually everyone in the ad ecosystem, publishers and ad-tech providers, to be part of that conversation. What’s happening right now is you have about…we have two states. We have Virginia, we have California that have come up with their own privacy laws. There’s another 12 that are thinking about doing that by the end of the year. What happens is we get a patchwork of laws, really challenging for publishers. It’s not scalable to have different laws for different states. It’s really, really hard to be able to scale that and to do that.
And so, me along with many other publishers and leaders within this space, including the IAB, DCN, we are pushing for federal legislation so we can all be working from the same laws, the same rules. And then we have to clear up some of those rules as well. There’s a lot of gray areas when it comes to this. So let’s all be working on the same definitions of words. Very important that we’re all working together so we can become our consumer privacy focus. None of us are saying that we shouldn’t do that. We all think it’s a good idea. Let’s do it together in the right way, and let’s build some consistency across publishers so consumers know exactly what to expect.
Salz: Good point. I’m based in Europe where we’re still figuring out.
Bachstein: Yeah. But at least all of your countries got together and put it together, GDPR. There are still some gray areas, no doubt. But at least you guys took that step to do that, which is important.
Salz: What can help publishers better understand and even stop churn before it starts? So it’s about understanding subscriber behavior and reducing churn.
Bachstein: Yeah, so definitely two parts to any subscription business. There’s acquisition. I think consumers will say, “Well, I’ll try something once,” or, “I’m up to try something.” And certainly, you can give free trials. That’s been a technique that’s worked really well for us. But then the retention side, a really big part of the business. We’ve been fortunate to have retention as high as 75%, which is much higher than the industry. But it all comes down to the product. If you are delivering on the expectations that a subscriber has for your product, you will retain them.
And so, again, it’s really having a great strong product. We’re choosing to enhance the features and give them more as subscribers. So are we improving their experience? And so we found that to be really successful with retention. So we definitely pay attention to that. But I also feel customer service is important. When your subscribers have an issue, you have to respond to them. They are paying money out of their pocket and so they deserve to be listened to and to have their problems troubleshooted as quickly as you can. And so we definitely have made a big investment to focus on our subscribers to make sure that if they have issues that we are solving them for them very quickly.
Salz: You really do love a challenge in your job. What’s the hardest part of your job?
Bachstein: Oh, well, how much time do you have, Peggy? No. It’s funny, I think for every leader, you have to have a strong strategy. And it’s got to be a focused strategy. And then you have to stay focused on that strategy. That can be challenging sometimes because the world around you is changing. But if you really believe in that strategy, only working on that. Stop working on things that just don’t align to that. It’s very important, not only my business but all of IBM is doing that as well.
Salz: What do you see overall as the biggest opportunity on the horizon for publishers?
Bachstein: I absolutely think the biggest opportunity is the use of AI, especially in the ad-tech space. Using AI to really bring together the brands and the marketers with the consumers in a way that uses all different types of signals that doesn’t rely on the cookie is just a really big step forward. And one of the reasons I think so is because AI has the ability to predict. So the cookie only tells us what happens in the past. With AI, we can actually go forward, and we can predict, and we can forecast. And so being able to do that with AI is just, I think, a really great tool and it really has a bright future. I really feel it’s a transformational part of the industry. And really is a new tech that we need to embrace.
Salz: And to your point, I mean, advertising…which works, I’m not saying it’s broken, but through using cookies, identifiers, IDFA, we’re looking backward. And with AI, we’re going to be looking more forward, more predictive. So it does make a lot of sense to say that the opportunity is to understand what I may be doing, what I may be wanting, and to target that rather than maybe my past behavior.
Bachstein: That’s right. It’s all about a new technology, a new foundation or backbone to the ad industry, having it be AI instead of what we’ve been using in the past with cookies. It’s a way forward. I mean, advertising is not going away, but it is evolving. And we can be smarter, and we can use better technologies to connect consumers with our brands and marketers.
Salz: And speaking of connecting, Sheri, it was great to connect with you today. Thank you so much for sharing. How can people stay in touch with you if they want to maybe continue the conversation or understand a little bit more about tips, they can follow to move their app from ad-support to subscription?
Bachstein: Yes, reach out to me on LinkedIn. You can find me on LinkedIn. I’m happy to have a chat. And I’d love to just know what other companies are doing as well and how can we collaborate and work together?
Salz: Absolutely. Well, thank you. And thank you for tuning in. More to come of course in the series. And in the meantime, be sure to check out all the great content, including a companion post to this interview at digitalcontentnext.org and join the lively conversation on Twitter at DCNOrg. Until next time, this is Peggy Anne Salz for Digital Content Next.
Many white Americans—and American corporations—were shocked into a recognition of America’s ingrained racism, past and present, by the brutal drama that played out in 2020 on the blacktop of a Minneapolis street and under the knee of a former police officer.
The callous murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans spurred millions to finally take a close, honest look at their communities, schools, and businesses. Eyes turned to newsrooms as we sought to understand why the media’s depiction of these institutions do not reflect the diverse reality of our lives.
Echoing uprisings in the streets, we saw similar uprisings within America’s newsrooms. The inequities seen in our communities parallel those long in place in media institutions. And our news coverage and the framing of news stories and issues reflect these biases.
Racial disparities in America are older than the Constitution. They began with America’s original sin of chattel slavery. Tremendous leaps and bounds have been made in the fight to realize the promises in our founding documents for all Americans. Yet those words—that all are created equal—remain aspirational.
The Institute for Journalism Education was born out of this aspiration, of the struggle to ensure all segments of our society are fairly, accurately, and equitably represented. This applies not only to the halls of Congress, but to the pages and screens of our journalistic institutions.
Long before the ubiquity of “DE&I” initiatives and Black Lives Matter marches, Washington Post journalist Robert C. Maynard recognized that white men dominate America’s media organizations. Declaring “We must desegregate this business,” Maynard and eight other journalists founded the institute to train and lift up journalists of color. Robert Maynard’s ineradicable legacy as a true pioneer was solidified when the organization he helped create was posthumously renamed the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
The Institute’s flagship program, the Maynard 200 Fellowship, is about building a new and lasting legacy for entrepreneurs, leaders, and storytellers of color who will shape the future of journalism in America. What we are seeing across journalism right now is a modern-day Civil Rights Movement for journalists of color.
In response, we must foster substantive power, belonging, and agency within the institutions that tell the stories of our society and our world. Through Maynard 200, the institute aspires to empower journalists of color to lead and grow organizations to have cultures of belonging. These leaders will help ensure that media organizations continue to serve our democracy. To do so, they must accurately represent the minds, souls, histories, and perspectives of all Americans.
Like many organizations, we’ve had to pivot following public health protocols due to the ongoing recovery from the global Covid-19 pandemic. That means that, for the first time, Maynard 200 will hold an all-digital training component to serve more than 40 diverse media professionals as fellows across the country. The program provides them with tools to elevate their own digital voices through panels, dialogues, and events.
Diversity and equity
For decades, Maynard has been the standard-bearer of aspiration and expertise in its primary mission of making newsrooms reflect America. It has led the re-envisioning, and advancing, of what it really means to be “diverse.”
In fact, Maynard has flipped the prevalent DE&I convention upside down, by bringing equity to the forefront. Without equity, diversity is only performative. By focusing on equity, Maynard has forged a longstanding record of training and advancing individuals from a varied diaspora of racial and ethnic communities throughout newsrooms and media organizations across the country.
Maynard conceived the “Fault Lines” framework for facilitating honest discussion about highly charged issues, through an understanding of how people with different perspectives can view something in completely different ways. In other words, the way we perceive the world and experience each other is filtered by our own backgrounds and experiences. Thus, diversity of perspectives produces a strength greater than the sum of each individual alone.
And, as a result of Maynard’s framework, a new narrative has emerged: the necessity and power of belonging. It is not nearly enough for organizations to check a diversity box with new hires. The perspectives and backgrounds and ideas that each individual brings to the table must be fully absorbed into the culture and decision-making of the organization itself. Inclusion alone is surface-level; inclusion can be as empty as toleration. But when you belong, you can feel it. And the implications can be felt in the work you produce.
For the Maynard Institute, pursuing belongingness is about far more than mere integration. Belonging creates the kind of atmosphere where people of color can feel empowered and entitled to bring their full selves into the newsroom, including their history and their perspectives, rather than feeling pressured to contort themselves to fit existing narratives.
Maynard 200 is the institute’s answer to the breakdown in the pipeline of training and jobs for journalists of color. In the wake of the Great Recession, years of progress were decimated in a matter of months. The ongoing public health crisis vis-a-vis the pandemic, America’s widening racial disparities, and the division and hate provoked by the Trump administration have only increased the urgency and salience of Maynard’s cause.
Writing a new story
Repairing all of this damage requires institutions of journalism to be active participants in the dismantling of structures of systemic racism—rather than the enablers of inequity and oppression.
Media organizations can be part of the solution. From the stories they tell, to the sources they use, to the framing of what is news and who is newsworthy, the media is a powerful component in our nations racial reckoning. We believe that strong diverse leadership is critical for this to occur. And so, with this year’s Maynard 200, we renew our commitment to supporting the growth and equity for future media leaders. And it is our belief that these leaders will make an impact that will resonate across all sectors of American journalism and media.
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down gyms across the United States last year, people were forced to get creative with their workouts. POPSUGAR met the moment by bulking up its fitness content. However, even as gyms open up, the women-focused digital lifestyle brand is betting at-home workouts are here to stay. They’ve also seen that fitness serves as part of an overall content and monetization strategy that is good for audiences, and the brand’s bottom line.
Fitness was a core part of POPSUGAR’s video strategy long before the pandemic upended lives around the world. POPSUGAR got into fitness content in 2006. It launched a signature video franchise, dubbed Class Fitsugar, in 2012, which now sees an average of 1 million views per video.
Fitness content helped propel POPSUGAR’s rapid growth on Facebook in 2015. By January 2020, the brand launched a curated 4 Week Full-Body Fusion program. The collection of 25 workouts, each under 45 minutes, carries a one-time fee of $19.99.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, POPSUGAR released more than 200workouts across social media platforms and its own website. It amassed more than 3 million new subscribers on YouTube in 2020 alone, where its total audience now stands above 5.5 million.
The brand, which is part of Group Nine Media, now hosts live workouts with top trainers on Instagram stories and YouTube. It launches Snapchat popups, and posts on-demand workouts to Facebook, Twitter, and the POPSUGAR website. “This year, we’re continuing to see growth and audience attention on these workouts,” POPSUGAR GM Angelica Marden said.
Bite-sized multiplatform content isn’t just for news
Have just a few minutes to spare? No problem. POPSUGAR created a series of short workouts that require nothing more than a phone.
Unlike going to the gym, working out at home is about fitting fitness into your life wherever you can, according to Jennifer Fields, a new deputy editor hired from WebMD to oversee POPSUGAR’s fitness content. That could mean sliping a 5-minute ab workout in between zoom meetings or a 3-minute BTS cardio workout whenever you can carve out 270 seconds for yourself. Or it could be making a 15-minute HIIT class on YouTube part of your morning routine.
POPSUGAR’s goal is to “meet audiences wherever people spend their time,” Fields said. “So many people are looking for ways to exercise at home. There’s a freedom that comes with at-home workouts.”
The rise of at home fitness over the course of the pandemic has made it possible for friends to workout with one another despite geographic separations and differing time zones. It’s also made it easy for audiences to take classes from the farthest flung of their favorite fitness instructors.
Free is key
In early 2020, the company was exploring audience-supported models, such as it’s flat fee Full-Body Fusion program. In fact, it had plans to release a subscription app with a recurring monthly fee last spring. However, in March 2020, the company shifted gears to better serve their audience in need. They released the app as a free, ad-supported product and – with hundreds of thousands of downloads to date – have opted to keep it free.
POPSUGAR’s free online workouts are far more affordable than even a bargain gym membership and certainly cheaper than a new Peloton. In addition to amassing audiences across platforms, the strategy serves as a bridge between popular fitness experts and people who may not otherwise be able to afford or access their services. And now that audiences are acclimated to the flexibility and cost savings, the company thinks they’ll stick with the POPSUGAR plan in the long term.
The strategy aligns with that of parent company Group Nine Media, which traditionally monetizes video content through sponsorships and advertising on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and its website. It also licenses content to OTT services including Discovery+ and Xumo and syndicates some content to linear TV. Group Nine also generates revenue through affiliate product sales.
It’s about more than exercise videos
Nowadays, the lines between fitness, wellness, and health are blurring. That’s a theme Fields plans to surface more this year in POPSUGAR’s content. “Fitness isn’t a separate bucket adjacent to your health anymore,” she said. “It is your health.”
Fields takes a broad view of what fitness and health content can be, one that includes mental health, particularly among women of color. That view is one that’s already begun to emerge in POPSUGAR’s content strategy.
In fact, last May, POPSUGAR launched a mental health content hub. At the time, POPSUGAR Founder and President Lisa Sugar described the project as a way “to help readers feel connected and less alone in their daily battle.”
More recently, POPSUGAR launched a Snapchat show aimed at helping Gen Z audiences answer their questions about things like anxiety and depression. The show aims to provide practical, actionable advice to viewers.
“We feel this is really an important conversation for us to be a part of,” Marden said. “Our goal across everything that we create and all of our programming is to offer an inclusive positive safe space for our audience and to help them live their best lives.”
In the constant scramble for sustainable, long-term audience growth, an increasing number of media companies are placing their bets on news products aimed at kids.
Since last April, Lester Holt has been anchoring a weekly kids edition of “NBC Nightly News.” The New York Times is currently developing a digital subscription product based off of its “NYT Kids” print section. And, in August, Group Nine Media’s NowThis launched NowThis Kids, a weekly video series complete with a dedicated newsletter and podcast.
For a news outlet whose audience is largely made up of millennial parents, it was a natural expansion, said NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos. Moreover, amid a pandemic, an economic recession, and nationwide protests against racial inequality, it fulfilled a pressing need.
“This was a moment where we saw that there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Stephanopoulos. “How do parents communicate these complex issues to their children? It was the right time for us, with what was happening in the world. And quite frankly, we saw a business opportunity to program to this audience and bring in big-brand partners who saw a need for this.”
TIME for Kids has long been a presence in elementary school classrooms. But when the pandemic halted in-person learning, TIME for Kids began offering digital editions of its print magazine free of charge. In September, it transitioned that offering into a digital subscription product marketed to parents.
“I think families understand that if we’ve been in classrooms for 25 years, then we’re a resource that they can trust to handle issues well with their kids,” said TIME for Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco.
Another, more established, player in the digital area of the children’s news space is Canadian public broadcaster, CBC. That outlet’s kid-focused online vertical debuted in the fall of 2018. However, it was an idea that originated in its Halifax newsroom as early as 2016.
“The whole idea of misinformation and fake news was really surfacing, so it became more and more apparent that CBC, as a news organization, should have a news service for kids,” said Lisa Fender, senior producer at CBC Kids News.
Inspiring a new generation of consumers
In all three cases, the long-term benefits of forming trusting relationships with a rising generations of news consumers are clear. But each outlet’s editorial approach differs based on its respective strengths.
NowThis Kids focuses on highlighting inspirational stories about kids and adults putting kindness into action, says Stephanopoulos. Many of its key topics—equality, climate change, body positivity—reflect those covered by its parent news outlet, which primarily targets liberal-leaning young adults. “It’s an opportunity to cover the core issues specific to NowThis through a lens that’s inspirational [to kids] about what’s happening in the world around them,” Stephanopoulos said.
TIME for Kids approaches its audience as two distinct groups: younger students learning to read, and third- through sixth-grade students who are reading to learn. “Once we make the jump to the reading-to-learn crowd, we’re really focused on making sure that they can recognize authentic journalism and value it and see all the different voices that we use as a magazine of journalists, as opposed to a textbook,” said Delbanco.
Like NowThis Kids, TIME for Kids focuses on inspiring kids to action. It also seeks to give them a sense of agency and hope, she said. And while it leverages TIME’s newsroom as much as possible, creating news for kids requires a different skillset from traditional journalism. A dedicated editorial team is complemented by a curriculum team. They create teaching materials and parent resources to accompany each story the editors produce and provides guidance on which content is appropriate for each age group.
“We have to assume that kids have no context for any story we’re telling them about, which is different,” Delbanco said. “It also takes a really specific focus on what will interest kids, what will be understandable to them, and how we can make sure that we’re not talking down to them.”
Keeping a finger on the pulse is one of the biggest challenges faced by CBC Kids News, according to Fender. Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to have social media accounts. Of course, many of them do. Fender’s team solicits feedback from kids directly when working on stories as well as through regular surveys. Identifying stories of interest to children is paramount, regardless of the topic.
“We never shy away from doing anything because it’s sad or scary or sensitive,” Fender said. “If kids are talking about it, then we want to make sure that we have the information there for them so they’re not getting misinformation from somewhere else.”
Reaching children—and their parents—online
Audience marketing in the platform era is a matter of constant adjustments for news outlets of any kind. When the end users are children—and parents mindful of what their children are exposed to—it opens up an entirely different set of considerations.
While TIME for Kids and CBC Kids News are both ad-free, NowThis Kids has been exclusively sponsored by Cheerios since its launch. Stephanopoulos said the kids edition requires a higher degree of vigilance about how and when a brand is integrated, and identifying the right partner was critical.
“We have a shared ethos around promoting positivity and bringing families together,” he said. “It’s an integration that doesn’t feel disruptive or inserted in a way that’s going to impact parents’ reactions to the content.”
As part of the transition from teachers to parents as the target market, TIME for Kids has leaned into a lot more cross-promotion, such as its partnership with Nickelodeon on a “Kid of the Year” franchise. But Matt Stevenson, TIME’s VP of product marketing, said TIME for Kids has seen “great success” by partnering with Cricket, a long-standing children’s literary magazine that is ostensibly a competitor.
CBC Kids News has no dedicated marketing budget, Fender says, relying mostly on word-of-mouth. However, it does leverage many of the CBC’s existing channels to cross-promote its content.
Context is key
While clearly self-serving, helping kids understand the topics dominating the news cycle and the importance of reliable sources benefits the industry—and by extension, society—as a whole. But Julie Smith, a communications professor at Webster University who specializes in media studies and sits on the board of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), remains skeptical.
“This isn’t a public service; it’s about making money,” Smith said. “I understand it. They’re in business to make money. But we have to consistently remind parents to ask why they’re doing this.”
Parents need to remember that kid-focused news outlets function as a resource for conversations with their children, but not a substitute, she said. The sender of a message, their motive, who is profiting from it, and what information is being left out are all aspects that parents should ask their children about when consuming news. These are terrific topics to discuss with children as a means to improve their media literacy.
“Most kids get their information from YouTube,” she added. “That’s significant. Do kids understand the difference between fact and opinion? Or a reporter and a pundit? I think kids need to understand that if we’re using an app or a website for free, we’re not the customer. We’re the product.”
To that end, news literacy is a “huge area of focus” for TIME for Kids, according to Delbanco. From the minute they learn to read, she reasoned, children should be taught to be critical of what they’re consuming.
“Of course, we are thrilled to be raising generations of people who love TIME. But beyond just the TIME brand, what we’re really hoping to do is help raise a generation of kids who can do better within this information crisis than previous generations have.”
CBC Kids News allows teachers to book virtual “hangouts” in classrooms, taking kids behind the scenes on the production process for a particular story. This provides an opportunity for teachers to deliver lessons on media literacy, as well as another chance to solicit feedback on the topics kids are interested in.
Building for the future
Transparency around how stories are produced is a good first step, said Smith. Rising awareness of the importance of media literacy education, including the growing number of states enacting legislation to that end, has her feeling more optimistic than ever before.
As for the publishers, early returns suggest that it’s good business, too. TIME for Kids generated approximately 75,000 digital subscribers in its first four months, Stevenson said, and TIME has no plans to discontinue it after students are fully back in their classrooms.
“We’re very happy with the early response, both in terms of what we were hoping for and where we can see this going,” added NowThis’s Stephanopoulos. “Video is what we’ve built ourselves around, but we’ve also seen great growth around the newsletter and the podcast.”
The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.
The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.
There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.
What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.
“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”
On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news.
Streaming news still a rarity
While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.
ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.
“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.
“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”
However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.
“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”
Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.
Falling off a cliff
However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.
“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.
“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”
It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.
However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?
Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.
“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”
A new business model
Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”
Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.
Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.
Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.
“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”
However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.
“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.”
—Charles M. Schultz
For those focused on where the future of the internet media economy is headed, all eyes turned to Australia in recent weeks. And, despite a last-minute PR spin campaign filled with half-truths and outright deception by pundits around the world vying to influence the debate, the end result is a new law, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which foreshadows the future for Google and Facebook.
We’ve had enough hot takes. It’s time to kill off, once and for all, the disinformation, misinformation, and talking points of the infamous duopoly, which I’ll try to do here by busting 10 myths. (Happy to talk through any of these further. Just reach out: publicly or privately.)
1. The bargaining code resulted from an arbitrary process.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Australian government undertook a thorough, multi-year process to establish this new law. Importantly, its competition regulator (ACCC) spent nearly two years investigating the dominance of Google and Facebook. The result was a 600+ page report that clearly demonstrates the imbalanced bargaining power held by the duopoly. At the same time, the Australian government – with support from all political parties – formulated a public policy decision about how to better fund journalism. The only assumption made was that the press is critically important to democracy. This should not be a controversial assumption.
2. The inventor of the web has called this a “link tax” that will break the internet.
Yes, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a letter rightly expressing his concern that if it was possible to require payment for links throughout the web, it could break the internet. In the letter, he often hedged and clearly wasn’t focused on the specifics of the law, which does not require payment for links. We’ve seen this “link tax” talking point high on Google’s list in the past. And it’s a galvanizing force for defenders of the open web – as it should be. The law does mention linking but only in the context of describing what a digital platform does by publishing, curating, and linking to the news. It’s narrowly focused on the two platforms and in no way does it suggest a platform should be required to compensate for its links to news outlets.
3. Facebook won key concessions at the final hour.
The concessions for Facebook were, in fact, relatively minor. When Facebook pulled news off Australian users’ feeds, their goal was to trigger global outrage, shake up the press cycles, and turn the globe against Australia. Then, by throwing its PR might behind some elegant spinning about a great compromise, Facebook saved face. That’s all they did.
The final concessions included the addition of a couple windows of time (measured in months) in which Facebook will lobby and protest about having to pay for news. The “concessions” also included two changes that clarify the mechanics of the code.
4. This law is a gift to Murdoch and hurts everyone else.
Yes, News Limited has a lot of influence in Australia as its leading news company. In fact, as the ACCC Chairman noted, 80-90% of the journalists in Australia work for one of three companies (News, Nine, ABC). However, the idea that Google or Facebook would negotiate with these three companies and hang the other 10% of the market out to dry seems very unlikely considering the modest amount of additional funds it will take to round out the rest of the industry.
Having spent a significant amount of time on Australia’s 600+ page report, I would suggest that the law is much more clearly in the camp of increasing bargaining power for all journalism. It’s hard to argue that any news publisher with more than $150k in revenue per year isn’t better off with this law in place. Moreover, the law also allows for publishers to collectively bargain if they prefer. That does seem likely if they’re not getting what they need from Facebook and Google.
5. News Corp’s global deal with Google will result in settlements of antitrust lawsuits.
This anti-antitrust argument is the silliest thing I’ve heard. There is no greater fallacy in digital media right now than attributing the global antitrust scrutiny on Google and Facebook to one or even just a few parties. The antitrust lawsuits currently filed have the weight of the U.S. government, in 49 out of 50 states, and both parties in Congress.
The cases are robust, particularly the Texas-led advertising tech case against Google (which mirrors some of the work of the ACCC), Congress. Another is from the CMA, which is the UK’s comparable regulator. It also alleges a Section 1 charge of bid rigging between Facebook and Google. No market regulator walks away from these cases based on the whims of one complainant. The work in Australia has only added weight to these cases.
6. Publishers in Europe should be celebrating.
Globally, there is a lot of positive reaction to the work done in Australia. However, it’s also notable that the European market has been working for even longer on better funding professional content. In successfully passing an updated copyright directive, they’ve taken an approach that establishes additional rights for publishers through a publisher’s “neighboring right.”
Importantly, the European approach is not restricted to just news. It covers all content including snippets offered on Facebook and Google. France was first to bake this new right into law. Google responded by trying to avoid paying for anything that they’ve historically taken for free.
They’ve even invented a new product offering, Google News Showcase, to bury their payments and bundle in all rights needed. This minimizes any increased bargaining power for publishers, which has caused even more scrutiny. This opaque bundling of payment for rights by Google and Facebook keeps popping up wherever they face regulatory threats. If payment for snippets isn’t clearly delineated, and the financial terms aren’t transformative, the EU is likely to view Australia’s new law as a missed opportunity.
7. Government will set an arbitrary price for platforms to pay for news content.
The reality is that Australia has come up with a solution that uses market forces by requiring negotiated deals with publishers ahead of a mandatory bargaining code or an arbitration process. It uses a clever “final offer” process (also known as “baseball arbitration”) to finalize deal terms. In both cases, the government recognizes its weaknesses in over regulating a fast-growing digital marketplace. Instead, it leverages its antitrust enforcement to create a carrot and then a stick to get companies benefiting from a gross imbalance in bargaining power to the table to properly and quickly negotiate.
8. A straight platform tax would be a better solution.
The simple problem with a straight tax is all content would need to be “treated equally.” A click on Breitbart would have the same value as a click on The Wall Street Journal. The government would then divvy up a pot of money between everyone. This creates all sorts of uncomfortable government leverage over news. And one can only imagine how they would choose to split the loot. Think about the market incentives if they divided it up based on monthly uniques or page views. Better to push negotiations back into the market where intangibles such as brand, heritage, trust, consumer perception, and scoops have significant value.
9.This is unique to Australia and won’t translate to other countries.
Every lawmaker in Canada, Europe, the U.K., and U.S. who is focused on these issues will draft off Australia. Arguably, this was the biggest concern for Google and Facebook. They hoped to limit discussion to an island on the other side of the world. Our global market no longer works this way. Everyone learns from each other. Despite Facebook and Google’s ability to leverage their global dominance to protect their fortresses through trade deals, lobbying, and ducking lawmakers, the whole world is catching up to them.
Also, there are major allies in these fights to support the free and plural press. Microsoft, one of the few companies larger than Google or Facebook, has aligned with publishers on the new policies in Australia and Europe. (Forgive me, as Microsoft’s support evokes the classic “That’s not a knife” scene in Crocodile Dundee.)
10. Facebook and Google have pledged $1 billion each to news publishers so we should be happy.
Together, these two companies will easily surpass $250 Billion in global advertising revenues in 2021 without even participating in China. As of now, they’ve pledged $1 billion each towards journalism over three years. Thus, Google and Facebook are pledging barely 0.2% of their global advertising revenues towards journalism. Facebook’s protesting of payments was evidence in itself for Representative Cicilline to state that the company “is no longer compatible with democracy.” (And I tip my hat to the publisher that flatly stated that Facebook’s offer was not enough.)
These are two globally-scrutinized companies which pride themselves on moonshots. Yet they have failed to properly address how their algorithms help spread misinformation, disinformation. This has led to genocide in Myanmar, an insurrection on our Capitol, and health misinformation causing untold illness and death worldwide … to name just a few “unintended consequences.”
The future is now
The simple fact is that Facebook prefers to pay into journalism no more than it does for fake news from Macedonia, while continuing to grow its nearly $100 billion per year business of surveilling and microtargeting citizens with ads against the cheapest engagement available. They’ve devalued context. They’ve devalued facts. And they’ve devalued journalism for profits. In Australia, we see democracy fighting back.
Australia’s law has been endorsed by all major political parties in a representative democracy as a means to better fund journalism. Importantly, though this was rarely discussed, the code has a one-year review period to see how it’s working. If you listened too closely to American pundits the last few weeks, you would have thought this was the end of the open Internet – hypocrisy considering the closed platforms of those who shaped it.
The law prevailed. The world didn’t end. In fact, it’s already tomorrow in Australia. They are ahead on this one, and there is a lot we can learn from it.
Women journalists work on the frontlines of online and offline violence. In the past three years, The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) has documented a significant rise of organized troll campaigns, as well as physical threats, targeting women journalists. This threat is one that should not just trigger anger and outrage, it must inspire political, structural, and societal change.
From India, the world’s largest democracy, to Northern Ireland, CFWIJ monitored cases of violence and threats against women journalists. We documented how women journalists have been subjected to violence both online and offline across 74 countries. These cases included various forms of physical violations, from kidnapping to murder, harassment, and attacks. We also observed increasing attempts to silence women’s journalistic work through state persecution and the weaponization of law, among other tactics.
In 2020 alone, CFWIJ documented 716 cases of threats and violence against women journalists. This was an increase of 138.6% in comparison to 2019, when we documented 291 cases. These include impediments in the field, detentions, imprisonments, legal harassment, and physical attacks — including four murders.
Signs of the times
The significant increase of targeting emerged right after the pandemic. We found most of these violations to be linked to the widespread efforts to suppress Covid-19 related coverage by many governments. Astonishingly, this includes The United States.
2020 was also a year of protests. Despite the fact that the entire world faced a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people across many nations — from the United States, through Belarus to Hong Kong — took to the streets in protests against government policies and civilian deaths due to state brutality or its indolence. These protests were covered around the clock by the media.
We saw women journalists on the frontline, consistently targeted while trying to document demonstrations. Police brutality against protesters garnered global attention. However, journalists working on the ground to document these unprecedented historic moments also found themselves among those injured, attacked, and detained. Their press credentials and rights to report were not respected by the authorities. The CFWIJ documented numerous examples of physical injuries and other incidents of harsh impediments to women journalists at work.
Trolls, threats, and power
Our work reflects the deteriorating working conditions in which women journalists continue to do their jobs. They remain alarmingly vulnerable to attacks. Certainly, the physical threats are a major call for concern. However, online trolling remains one of the most critical tools that has been weaponized against women in the media. We tracked the sources of many major troll campaigns. And in many countries like Pakistan, Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, and the Philippines, online trolls were linked to the state or authorities who have also been aggressively trying to silence the press.
We have noticed that these threats have often also leaked from the virtual into the physical world. This has resulted in physical attacks against women reporters. In Pakistan, one of our members and leading news anchor Asma Shirazi has faced many waves of online trolling. These threats became all too real when she was physically approached by her trolls trying to break into her house one night. In Northern Ireland, journalist Patricia Devlin has faced consistent trolling for over a year, to an extent that her child got rape threats. Her reporting is considered biased by some of her readers. Their retaliation has escalated from online trolling to physical threats. Earlier this month (Feb), some of these trolls sprayed threatening graffiti in several locations with a bullet sign. This followed targeting of another Irish journalist, Allison Morris, in a similar pattern, which included graffiti targeting women journalists.
Big picture, big problem
Threats and violations against women journalists have become more than a job hazard. This is a threat to their lives. And it poses a threat to journalism itself.
These attacks are directly linked to the journalistic work of the individuals. However, there is very little thought or resource invested by media and journalism institutions into thinking about solutions for this massive — even deadly — problem.
Media organizations do not take sufficient responsibility when these threats take place. Often, they do not even report on the violations their reporters face. A lack of institutional support can be especially difficult for the many women who are freelance journalists.
Building a support network
In the absence of information about the status of safety challenges journalists face, we cannot grasp the gravity of the issue. Some of the ways we at the Coalition For Women In Journalism try to offer support is by documenting each and every threat and attack we can track down.
We have learned that support systems are extremely critical to ensure journalists that are not dealing with threats on their own. Through our various regional and local support networks, women journalists can report any violations they face and reach the needed help.
When journalists are targeted, they should be able to reach a trusted colleague, mentor, or organization that can acknowledge and advise appropriately. Newsrooms and media organizations can easily build such systems. And they should in order to defend freelancers, staff, and the institution of journalism itself.
About the author
Kiran Nazish is a former foreign correspondent, who reported from several countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Turkey and Pakistan. After working for two decades, she noticed the various difficulties women journalists faced in many parts of the world. To tackle the problems, she launched The Coalition For Women In Journalism, a global mentorship and advocacy organization that aims at an equitable journalism industry worldwide. She is also the Stanley Knowles Distinguished Professor at Brandon University in Canada.
Subscription growth is expected to scale far more quickly than digital advertising. So, it is fair to say that many papers’ survival is predicated on perfecting a paywall strategy. To that end, subscriptions are becoming a primary consideration for publishers. According to PWC’s Media Trends 2020-2024 report, it is one of the few bright spots for newspapers, growing from $4.5bn in 2019 to $7bn by 2024.
As a result, few accusations raise hackles in digital news like the suggestion someone’s paywall strategy is wrong. We’ve seen that discussion play out many times between adherents of hard paywalls and the advocates for metered models. Now, though, there is growing sentiment that there may only be two or three big subscription players in any one niche. Consequently, rather than focusing on the terms of access, we are now talking about points of differentiation between what is included in each package.
At some titles, non-news products round out the subscription bundle, making it more appealing overall. For example, The New York Times’ Crosswords and Cooking products have long driven subscriptions. And they actually appear to be growing in importance to the company’s subscription strategy. In its latest earnings call, CEO Meredith Kopit Levien also confirmed that the Times’ plans to build a subscription service around its review site Wirecutter.
Few outlets have the funds or the products to be able to bundle additional products into their news subscriptions, however. The points of differentiation for most have to come from their core content. For regional publishers making a play for subscription revenue, that uniqueness comes from the fact that they are the only provider of local news in the area.
However, national titles must differentiate in other ways. That might be a star columnist, or an edition-based publishing method as we’ve seen employed by The Times of London. Or it could even be putting the core product – the news – outside the paywall itself. And that’s where we get back to the accusation that people are doing paywalls wrong. Indeed, putting news outside a paywall is a grievous, unforgivable sin to some in the industry.
High value, no cost
We saw that with the reaction to news sites like The Financial Times and The Atlantic making their coronavirus coverage free-to-access. That was despite arguments from some of us that doing so would benefit their subscription businesses in the long-term. Even so, putting critical news outside the paywall is hardly unprecedented. But what if a national title were to put all of its rolling news outside the paywall, and instead rely on old content to convert people to subscribers?
That’s exactly what the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest national title, is planning to do. Per Nieman Lab’s write-up: “To read Nation articles more than seven days old … users will have to pay up.” Essentially, the value proposition shifts from free-to-access to paying for content that, in the world of digital news, is practically ancient. Subscriptions start at 50Ksh for one week, 150Ksh for one month, or 750Ksh for one year. (50Ksh is about 45 cents USD.)”
So, can an approach like this work? Can you effectively sell a “news” subscription where the content you’re charging for isn’t, well, new?
Deep dive archive
To answer that question, we need to look at other types of publications that have made access to archives the core tenet of a subscription.
Exact Editions operates a business that runs specifically on offering access to back-catalogue bundles, and a few years ago its managing director Daryl Rayner said: “A large proportion of our partners’ magazines are earning more from institutional subscriptions than they are from app sales in iTunes. It is an important market, not to be neglected.” I can’t imagine the propensity to pay for archives has fallen even as more people become willing to pay for digital subscriptions.
If not strictly news, these are news-adjacent articles, hopelessly out of date and yet hugely valuable. They are snapshots of a given time in history; small wonder that people will pay for access.
Beyond the back issue
Beyond the appeal to the consumer of archived feature writing, however, there is undoubtedly still inherent value in news archives. If there weren’t, there would never have been a drive to collect microfiches of old editions in libraries.
While it has done so with no eye to charging for access, the Internet Archive has digitized “almost the entire back catalog” of the Editor and Publisher. As Joshua Benton writes: “Newspapers’ archives are an incredible storehouse of information about the history of our country. And too many of those archives are, as E&P’s were, left crumbling in some storage facility or hidden away on unindexed rolls of microfilm.”
It’s a social service to archive these old stories, and doubly so at a time when digital news is frequently ephemeral. The half-life of news is infinitesimal. This was a concern as far back as 2009. And it’s only become more important as audiences wise up to the nature of digital news publishing. They appreciate having resources like this to the point that they will pay for it, as the British Library found when it began selling access to its archive of newspapers.
So, why is there reluctance to make these archives the core tenet of a news subscription as the Daily Nation has done, rather than hitching our future to up-to-the-minute coverage? It’s partly due to a discrepancy between what journalists and editors value versus what audiences consider worth paying for. I recently spoke to Ramus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about that dissonance. He argues:
“When news organizations who are turning to reader revenues are trying to sell subscriptions, that light is very focused on us and not very focused on the public that we aim and claim to serve. They are the ones who have to convince. You don’t need to convince me or journalists that what we do is important, or that we want more people to engage with it and even pay for it. You need to convince the people who aren’t doing it.”
Because those of us who work in journalism focus on the now, on being first. And, therefore, we can lose sight of what audiences actually need: context. It’s natural that we should fear putting our most valuable content out there for free. This is why hackles raise whenever someone brings it up. But if what we value isn’t what audiences value? How can we know what they think is really worth paying for?
More crucially, those archives offer perhaps the most valuable point of differentiation from rivals. “Breaking” news is easily replicable online. And, while it’s important it isn’t necessarily uniquely valuable. What is valuable is the analysis – the context – built around that news. As with the viral “Who is the banana republic now?” column that the Daily Nation found drove subscriptions, that evergreen content – abundant in newspapers’ archives – is both differentiator and draw for audiences.
Held virtually and expanded to five days, the 2021 edition of the member’s-only DCN Next:summit (February 1-5) was certainly unlike any that came before. Fittingly, CEO Jason Kint kicked things off by reflecting on all that has changed over the past year and, perhaps more importantly, what has not.
“Publishers have been covering three of the biggest stories of our generation, all intersecting at the same time,” he said. “Your ability to stay true to your brands and to the public trust, despite personal and professional obstacles, has been remarkable.”
Amid all of this, Kint reminded attendees that the industry will need to keep its priorities straight to fuel a stronger digital media marketplace. Indeed, a broad theme of the event was the many ways publishers are adapting to shifts accelerated by the pandemic by deepening their direct relationships with audiences.
Platform power plays
Constellation Research founder and chairman Ray Wang expanded on that topic in the opening session, an interview by BBC correspondent Larry Madowo. Noting increased competition from outside the industry, Wang called for greater cooperation among media companies.
“What we have is a fracturing in the marketplace, which is making it very hard to compete with the digital giants,” he said. “In order to succeed, you have to band together.”
Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner told Axios media reporter Sara Fischer that the “immensely powerful position” of tech platforms will need to be addressed by regulators. At the same time, he shared an optimistic outlook for the future of journalism. Unlike the print-centric business he took over 20 years ago, digital journalism carries lower costs, he said, allowing media companies to invest more heavily in editorial.
“You have no deadline. You have unlimited space,” Döpfner said. “And you can combine all aesthetic forms of journalism. It can be video, it can be audio, it can be text, it can be all combined. I think we are still in the early days of digital journalism and its creative potential.”
Monopolies and media models
Döpfner added that there’s a future for both subscription- and ad-supported journalism on the web, and that many organizations will continue with a mix of both. The future of advertising, however, depends on the role of platforms.
On the contrary, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway said the key to survival for media companies will be subscriptions. He said that giving content away for free to “innovators and algorithms” was “the biggest mistake journalism ever made.”
Interviewed by Henry Blodget, the CEO of Axel Springer-owned Insider Inc., Galloway added that regulators should further address platforms’ data collection capabilities to mitigate their harmful effects.
POLITICO antitrust reporter Leah Nylen and Yale economist Fiona Scott Morton then explored potential regulatory remedies to the anti-competitive practices of tech companies. Scott Morton encouraged media companies to help educate regulators on the impact of “dominant advertising intermediaries,” such as Google.
“These markets for digital advertising are not something that most people understand,” she said. “It requires effort on the part of the affected parties to help move the conversation forward and push regulators in a direction that’s good.”
“There’s plenty of room for other digital journalism outlets to survive and thrive,” she said.
“We’re still in the early days of the pay model. It wasn’t that long ago that everybody said things like ‘digital news wants to be free.’ Some of our journalistic competitors are having great years for subscriptions. We look at all of that as making a market.”
To build on the 2.3 million digital subscriptions the Times sold in 2020, Kopit Levien said the outlet will be investing in covering live and developing news. Additionally, she suggested that publishers should work to reduce their dependence on third-party data to help create better digital experiences for subscribers.
Meeting audiences whenever, wherever
CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter sat with CBS News president Susan Zirinsky for a discussion on how the pandemic has accelerated shifts in the TV news business. Gone are the days of holding major scoops or interviews for primetime, Zirinsky said. Even broadcast news must adapt to a 24/7, cross-platform model.
“We want to give people facts,” Zirinsky said. “We want to share information. This is really what it’s about: being on every platform that is available, taking our unique content and putting it in as many places as a consumer is.”
One of those rising platforms, audio, was the topic of conversation between Gimlet Media head of content Lydia Polgreen, Pineapple Street Studios co-founder Jenna Weiss-Berman, and Recode’s Kafka.
While advertising remains a lucrative source of revenue, Polgreen said the medium needs some advancement in terms of measurement and audience-based selling, similar to other formats. Weiss-Berman added that the mechanisms for connecting ad buyers with content creators need development. Both agreed that there is still tremendous room for growth. The next big challenge will be reaching people who don’t currently listen to podcasts.
“If you look at the research, podcast listening has tripled since 2014, in terms of share of time, but only from 2% to 6%,” Polgreen said. “In a world where audio is completely on-demand, the possibilities are pretty endless.”
The future of media and journalism
Elsewhere on the program, Snap CMO Kenny Mitchell and Clubhouse CEO Paul Davison each explored growth strategies for their respective platforms. They also touched on the importance of creator relationships and the intersection of content and community.
Julia Angwin, editor-in-chief and founder of The Markup, took attendees behind the scenes of The Atlantic’s highly successful COVID tracking project. Staff writer Alexis Madrigal, who co-founded the project, reflected on the many challenges involved in merging numerous disparate sources of data to meet a critical need for information in the early months of the pandemic.
Angwin noted that the project exemplifies the tangible benefits that journalistic endeavors can provide to the public, particularly when providing information that might be “politically inconvenient.”
On the final day of the Summit, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director at The Texas Tribune, led a lively conversation with 2PM Inc. founder Web Smith and The Washington Post’s VP, commercial, Jarrod Dicker, on the future of media. In line with the trends, the discussion largely focused on the rise of independent creators.
“Twitter and other platforms have enabled individual people to build their own reputation. It’s created an entirely new landscape,” Dicker said. “Creators can see what their individual value is. I think that’s a change in the discourse.”
New year, same values
In closing, Kint said that, despite adapting well to a virtual event, he hoped to see everyone back in Miami for the 2022 DCN Next: Summit. In the interim, he advised those in attendance to focus on three key things: strengthening bonds with audiences and partners, understanding the core needs of both, and emphasizing agility in response to change.
“Every member of DCN has a direct and trusted relationship with their users and advertisers,” he said. “Our Summit is the one place where, in the comfort of a closed-door environment, surrounded by others who share our values, we can also share our successes and vulnerabilities.”
Since Covid-19 closed offices everywhere, the workplace has changed beyond recognition. Home working currently accounts for than more than two-thirds of economic activity in the U.S. Now, about a year in, employees have settled into a routine of working from their bedroom, office, or kitchen. And managers have found new ways to communicate and engage with their staff.
With the pandemic normalizing remote work, the question is: Will we ever want to work in an office again? According to research, 55% of US workers want a mixture of home and office working. Liz Vaccariello, Editor-In-Chief of Real Simple at Meredith Corporation agrees that hybrid is the best option.
“All remote, all the time is not healthy, especially in media, where the creative process needs to happen in person,” says Vaccariello. “But as a creative lead, I don’t see the need for office hours to be Monday to Friday, nine to six. It’s just inefficient. Twice a week is good enough!”
Many businesses are considering this hybrid option and starting to think about a long- term model. So, what lessons have been learned during lockdown that we can take forward into this next phase? We spoke to industry experts at Complex Networks, Meredith Corporation, and The Financial Times to find out.
Communication pro tips
“The pandemic has put a focus on intentional and clear communication,” says Krystle Douglas, VP People & Culture at Complex Networks. “So, think about what it is you are saying, how you’re saying it, and how it’s received.”
While Slack is great for keeping in touch with your team and dealing with daily duties, you need to make sure you take the time to personally reach out to individual staff. “I’ve been checking in with everyone by calling them every two weeks,” says Vaccariello. “A phone call feels more intimate and it makes us feel more connected. This is even more true than when we were in an office together, where I was around, but not always available. Additionally, I personally mail each person a note about each issue, mentioning a story they worked on, or how they contributed.”
Surveys are also a great way to communicate, as the anonymity enables employees to freely express their opinions. The Financial Times (FT) regularly surveys their staff. Since lockdown Kirsty Devine, the company’s U.S. Head of HR & Global Project, says they have been targeting questions around well-being and working from home.
According to Vaccariello good communication starts with empathy. “Managers need to empathize individually and thinkabout each member of their staff and what they need,” she explains. “For example, when dealing with my younger team members, I think about my 22-year-old self. I ask: How would I be feeling?”
Douglas agrees that empathy is key to ensuring people interpret messages the way you want them to be received. “We are all busy, but you have to pause and pay attention. Everyone is dealing with a lot right now, but not everyone is ok with sharing it,” she states. “It’s about being more thoughtful in how you reach out and connect with people.”
Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. However, according to research, it can be taught. The FT provides training and coaching on how to supervise staff according to their situation.
“Empathic leadership has never been so important, but not all managers are used to it,” says Devine. “In the office you can read body language. But with people working remotely they need to ask questions about how people are doing and not just brush off the response, which some people are uncomfortable with.
EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP TIPS
The mindfulness app Headspace offers the following advice for empathetic leadership:
Look: Check-in with your team and look for the unsaid. How are people’s energy levels?
Listen: Give your team space to be open and honest about how they feel, both mentally and physically.
Feel: Taking the time to acknowledge how someone else is feeling empowers us to respond with kindness.
Respond: In times of high stress, it’s easy to let frustrations get in the way of skilful communication. Pause and give yourself space to respond in a kind way.
Flexible hours and expectations
With empathy comes an understanding of how people choose to manage their working day. This can be particularly important if they have other responsibilities, such as home schooling.
“Nine to five is out the door,” states Vaccariello. “Working during this pandemic is just about getting work done when you can.” You have to trust your staff to get their work done, at a time that fits in with their home life.
Giving them more autonomy, rather than constantly checking they are online, will cultivate a culture of trust, respect and ultimately hard work. “The work will speak for itself,” says Vaccariello. “If a team member can get their work done in five hours, good for them!”
Less can be more
The downside of flexible working is finding the “off button” at the end of the day. “The commute served as the emotional shoulder of the day,” explains Vaccariello. “You would read the paper on the way in to prepare for the day, and a novel on the way home to switch off. But now we have no practical or emotional boundaries. So, we work longer hours.
“Meredith may get more [time] out of us, but I don’t see it as a benefit. I want employees with a healthy work-life balance. if they spend 12 hours a day looking at a screen they are going to burn out, and that’s not good for business.”
It’s up to management to supervise their staff and ensure they aren’t working all hours. Real Simple has a “no meeting” policy on Fridays, so people can set their own hours and focus on creativity. Complex Network has Mental Health Friday, where the office is closed every other Friday.
Monitor mental health
It’s also up to management to keep any eye on their team and watch for signs of mental health problems. Of particular concern are employees who live alone because work is their main source of interaction. Research by TotalJobs found that 46% of U.K. workers have experienced loneliness during lockdown.
There are a number of things you can do to support staff, from offering virtual therapy sessions, to providing in-house mentors. The FT already had a network of employees with mental health training in place. Devine says they have been a great source of support during lockdown. The newspaper also offers an employee assistance program (EAP), which provides independent, confidential counseling and support 24/7. Plus, they offer to pay 50% of a Headspace subscription.
“Since lockdown we have also introduced five wellness days, which are paid days where staff can take a break to get their head together,” says Devine. “And we provide resilience training on how to manage yourself in a remote environment.”
No matter how much support you offer, nothing can replace the bonding and benefits of sharing office space. “Journalists in the newsroom are itching to get back to office. They miss those moments of serendipity, when they are working on a story and bouncing ideas between desks,” says Devine.
Without those watercooler moments, Vaccariello says you need to find new ways to kickstart a conversation for your teams – especially with new staff members. “We can’t grab a beer or have a welcome bagel party. So, to make new staff feel part of the team we play games on Webex. Or we go around and have everyone say something about themselves, such as a book they’ve recently read.”
Complex Networks has a similar system, set up by Douglas, called Complex Coffee Talks, where different staff members talk about their professional and personal lives. “I wanted to find a way to keep morale high, but also provide a learning experience, so that all employees understand what everyone else is doing,” Douglas says. “Because understanding is the route to empathy, which builds a stronger, happier workforce.”
While Covid has caused chaos around the globe, there is no doubt that some positives have come out of the pandemic. Workplace flexibility is one of them. It can increase productivity, decrease stressful commutes and save money on office space and travel expenses. But the key to successful remote working is good management and consistent support.
“It’s all about empathy, communication and understanding,” says Douglas. “You need to be in tune with your team, so listen and pay attention.”
Public policy debates over consumer privacy and platform liability will feature prominently in 2021. Some are even hopeful that policymakers can reach bipartisan agreement on solutions. These are two important issues that I want to explore. However, I wonder if they aren’t the byproduct of a bigger problem.
Consumer privacy: A policy patchwork
One could argue that the digital advertising industry has been “regulated” (even if enforcement was less than robust) since 2010 when the industry’s self-regulation group, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), rolled out its AdChoices program. In 2018, Europe began enforcing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In 2020, the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) came online followed by the November passage of the GDPR-like California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA).
Against this alphabet soup of patchwork regulation, we may be reaching a tipping point. For one thing, more states are expected to pass consumer privacy laws in 2021. Even with pandemic-altered legislative calendars, 16 states nearly passed laws in 2020.
Additionally, Congress has held countless hearings over the last two years to investigate big tech’s massive data collection operations. Those hearings are sometimes painful to watch, but they are serving to educate members of Congress, who appear to be much more knowledgeable now than they were a few years ago. (Remember when one of them asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money? Oy.)
As further evidence of an increasingly savvy Congress, there is a bipartisan group of Senators quietly negotiating to craft a national consumer privacy framework. From what I’ve seen and heard, their approach is fairly solid. With slim Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, this kind of bipartisan approach is the only way that any meaningful privacy law can get passed. However, the deck may be stacked against them. It is difficult to move major legislation with slim majorities in the House and Senate because the margin for error is very small.
All that said, the California laws (CCPA and eventually CPRA) are likely to serve as the de facto national standard. Many companies already apply those laws nationwide, not just for California residents. Besides which, most of the big tech giants are based in California. While the CCPA was a strong first law designed to give consumers more control over how their data is collected and used, CPRA is directly targeted at curbing Google and Facebook’s massive data collection and profiling operations.
GDPR has a similar focus. However, Google and Facebook have employed creative compliance strategies that have allowed them to temporarily evade a direct hit to their businesses. The big question is whether European and California regulators can force big tech companies into finally complying with the spirit of these consumer privacy laws. Fines are fine. But the laws were actually intended to empower and protect consumers.
Section 230: A Tale of two parties
Often referred to as “The 26 Words That Created The Internet,” Section 230 became a target of both political parties in 2020. Prominent Republicans and Democrats — including each party’s Presidential nominee — have called for the elimination or massive overhaul of Section 230. And yet Congress is not all that close to resolving anything.
The problem is that each party’s concerns lead them to propose different solutions. Democrats and Republicans both agree that big tech platforms have too much market power. Hence, the flurry of antitrust lawsuits filed by a Republican Department of Justice (and likely to be carried forward by a Democratic Department of Justice) and a bipartisan flotilla of state attorneys general.
With regard to Section 230, however, Democrats criticize tech platforms for not taking action quickly enough to combat disinformation, harassment, and demagoguery. Republicans, on the other hand, allege that big tech companies use the legal shield of Section 230 to suppress conservative speech. Essentially, Democrats want tech companies to do more while Republicans want tech companies to do less. These fundamentally different viewpoints are likely to make it difficult for Congress to agree on any big changes to Section 230.
Big picture, bigger issue
What’s interesting to me is that the public policy debates around consumer privacy and Section 230 are largely driven by dominance and anticompetitive behavior of big tech companies. I wonder if we would even be having these debates if Google and Facebook faced meaningful competition.
The aforementioned alphabet soup of consumer privacy regulations was developed to address consumer concerns about the ubiquitous and non-transparent collection of consumer data for use in behaviorally targeted ads. The two most dominant players in the digital ad industry, Google and Facebook, have built massive ad targeting businesses (basically the digital equivalent of junk mail), which are fueled by the collection of consumer data across the web and our lives. The duopoly, as we have called Google and Facebook for years now, accounts for 70 to 80% of the growth in the digital advertising marketplace. Much of this advertising is delivered on their own properties regardless of where they mined the data.
With regard to Section 230, the original intent of the law was to incentivize companies for making “good faith” actions to clean up their services. However, without meaningful competition among digital platforms, those companies are merely incentivized to protect themselves against legal action as opposed to competing for consumer loyalty.
Anticompetitive by design
Imagine a world where Facebook and Instagram were separate companies competing for consumers. I think they would be vying to prove which company would be the best at snuffing out disinformation, stamping out illegal activity, and generally providing the most trustworthy service.
Significantly, when Facebook was first launched, it touted a super strong set of privacy protections and controls to differentiate from the established market players at the time. But not now. The “like” button was originally designed as a user signal to show content interests. It has become an opaque means to track people’s movement around the web. Facebook’s business model is so reliant on tracking users it ran a national ad campaign last month to publicly pressure Apple to blink on its plan to restrict the use of its advertising identifier (IDFA). And let’s not forget that Facebook only reluctantly and belatedly de-platforms hate groups and removes disinformation.
If there was meaningful competition, big tech platforms would behave very differently within the industry and for consumers. The latest bit of evidence that Google and Facebook agreed to cooperate rather than compete with each other was particularly appalling. The two dominant players in digital advertising decided to carve up the market for themselves while icing out everyone else. The fact that the agreement exists at all is quite amazing. Perhaps more amazing is that these two companies had enough chutzpah to even engage in the negotiation in the first place. In many ways merely confirmed what many industry insiders already suspected. It’s the Duopoly’s world and we’re just living in it.
While we engage in meaningful and important debates about consumer privacy and the responsibilities of companies in a digitally-dominated world, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the competitive landscape is heavily tilted in favor of the big tech companies. The antitrust lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny faced by Google and Facebook are hugely important for restoring a heathy dose of competition, which could alleviate some of the downstream public policy concerns.