Sparks Fly at Publishers and Platforms Meetup


I love to check out reports from Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. They cover the intersection of news and digital media and can be a great resource for PR pros and digital marketers. So I eagerly attended the Platforms and Publishers meetup at Columbia Tow Center last week, which showcased the latest findings, and featured a panel of execs from Facebook, Google, NY Times and HuffPost.

Back in 2016, when I last covered the reports, the main storyline was social media’s growing role in news distribution.  A lot has happened since then: the presidential election, fake news epidemic, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and apparent stalled growth of social (as reported by BuzzSumo). I wanted to learn what the research revealed about our news consumption habits and tech’s impact on journalism.

Tow Center Director Emily Bell shared their report, which you can get here. Some of the highlights she presented include:

  • 86% say platforms reduce trust in journalism
  • Facebook is doing less than Google and Twitter to rectify the situation; they’re considered to be insincere in wanting to help journalism
  • There’s been no decrease in the volume of publisher social media posts
  • Publishers are increasing their platform savvy
  • She was surprised at how much contact there is between the platforms and media
  • One publisher said “We’re on slack with Apple News editors every day.”
  • Facebook wants to support local news
  • Local publishers are at a disadvantage with platforms
  • There’s been a sharp decline in Facebook Instant articles

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of Research at Reuters Institute, shared their report findings.  Here are the main takeaways that he cited:

  • For the first time there’s been a decline in number of users getting news from social media
  • Fewer get their news from Facebook
  • News discovered in social media is trusted least
  • Local TV news is the most trusted, followed by WSJ, then major TV networks
  • News discussion is moving to messaging, with WhatsApp now eclipsing Twitter
  • They’re seeing innovation around voice tech

The panel included:

  • Erica Anderson (Google)
  • Campbell Brown (Facebook)
  • Lydia Polgreen (HuffPost)
  • Mark Thompson (New York Times)
  • Moderator: Emily Bell (Tow Center)

I’ll be writing more about the takeaways  for marketers. But first, a flame from our sponsors…

While the platform and publisher meetups are normally pretty civil, the panel at this one devolved into a heated discussion. There were sharp exchanges between Facebook’s Head of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown and Mark Thompson, CEO of NY Times.  Others piled on, and you had to feel bad for Facebook and Campbell (especially as moderator Emily bell pointed out that it was her birthday).

One bone of contention was Facebook’s decision to put political ads in a separate archive. Since the NY Times pays to boost news articles, they go there too.

It seems it was unfortunate timing, as this just happened, and feelings were apparently raw. Campbell blogged about this the week before – and Mark threw this back in her face, as you can read below.  The NY Times got their two cents in with this story (which actually seems pretty balanced): Facebook’s New Political Algorithms Increase Tensions with Publishers.

The episode is an object lesson in the challenges of categorizing content and discerning news from promotion; and of unintended consequences when algorithms are the arbiters.  Should publishers get slapped when they  promote news? Are they getting penalized? Publisher reach is already declining due to Facebook’s recent algorithm changes.

I include a partial transcript below, and you can view the video above to see the entire exchange (it’s cued up for the start of the fireworks).

Thompson: Campbell wrote a blog yesterday saying that publishers are happy [on Facebook] – I’d love to meet one

(He then showed an article from NY Times Cooking that had been rejected by the Facebook algorithm. They were placed in a public archive of ads with political content).

The dangerous thing you are looking at is a pistachio and rosewater semolina cake recipe… perhaps because the cake may contain nuts. Frankly, Facebook may contain nuts. It does not to my understanding contain political content.

The extent to which the machine can mistake that for politics shows you the subtlety of what’s going on here. Another rejected ad features a NY Times news story.

(He showed a slide with Trump photo and headline: “President Donald J. Trump has canceled the June 12 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un”)

This has been rejected and is now in the ads for political content.

The enemies of high quality journalism want to blur the lines between arms-length reporting of politics and politics itself, they say there’s no difference.

Unintentionally, I’m afraid Facebook is supporting the enemies of high quality journalism.

Brown: There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re doing on the platform, I think I should start by explaining.

We, given what happened in the last election, made the decision that we would move towards more transparency of all advertising on Facebook; that we would share an archive of who’s paying for the ads, they’d be labeled “paid for by”…  so that that info would be publically searchable.

It’s our start at addressing transparency. We focused on all ads that contain political content or issues. Now obviously we recognize that there’s a distinction between news content about politics and advocacy advertising.  I was a journalist for 25 years.

So what we did was create a differentiation within the archive; where there’s an archive that says “news content” and an archive that says “political advocacy advertising”.  I don’t think there’s any blurring there.

The information is very clear and transparent… for anyone who wants to see who is advertising on our platform.

This is the first time I have heard journalists argue against transparency.

Thompson: (tried to interject)

Brown: No! No! Mark, I’m not finished!

Thompson: I’m not going to argue with you

Brown: You are arguing with me about transparency.

We are going to do this with all our advertisers… it’s really important… and the idea that we are somehow conflating the two sides is completely false. People are smarter than that.

What conflates advocacy and journalism… is when journalists do advocacy. And that’s happening a lot.

Emily Bell: That’s not what you saw there, advocacy by the NY Times.

Brown: I’m not suggesting it was. It was a piece of news content about president Trump… that was a boosted piece of news content about politics. We think that should be transparent.

Emily Bell: Most wouldn’t see that as an ad… it blurs the distinction between editorial and advertising.

Thompson: That’s a different distinction – you can debate or not debate that. This is not about a boundary… it’s the underlying thing. That is a NY Times news article. It’s completely blurred in Facebook’s head.

And honestly, Campbell – you now have 20K publishers around the world, and they’re fired up. You think this is going to help Facebook?

It’s a catalog of horrendous mistakes that Facebook has made. To be fair, Mark Zuckerberg admitted the scale of what went wrong. Trying to put it right in this way is just going to dig you deeper in the hole

Brown: What I hear is you’re all for transparency on Facebook except when it applies to us.

Thompson: (Tries to interrupt).

Brown: No Mark! You just got to talk.

Mark: Why not just label every single advertisement from the NY Times  as an “ad from the NY Times?”

Brown: That’s what it is labeled as: a piece of content paid for by the NY Times in an archive that says “news content”.

And I just wonder whether this is not about the NY Times not wanting to be transparent about how much money they spend on marketing.

Thompson: We’re open about all aspects of our marketing – we don’t want Facebook to set itself up as a judge around political content… you don’t understand.

It got heated, Emily Bell needed to step in.

Lydia Polgreen: Trust should not be a popularity contest

Brown: This shows misunderstanding – our broadly trusted survey is just one of thousands of signals that go into determining what shows up in someone’s newsfeed.

We survey people about what they find informative – that’s another signal. We look at how much time they spend reading a news article – that’s another signal

Listening to the misunderstanding that exists here makes me think that, honestly we are not doing a very good job of explaining ourselves on these issues

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