Last week, the Open Markets Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, hosted a discussion on the fate of journalism in the age of the duopoly titled, “Breaking the News: Free Speech & Democracy in the Age of Platform Monopoly.”
The conversation between government anti-trust officials, journalists, publishers, lawyers and subject-matter experts focused on the ongoing battle between publishers and platforms, and how the platforms have the power to both help and harm publishers.
The speakers held a multitude of views on the platform monopoly, from those who believe the problem is nonexistent to those who feel that only government oversight can correct the problem. We’ve collected some of the key questions raised by the event’s panelists that will make you think about the relationship between platforms and publishers in a new way.
Should we look beyond the consumer welfare lens?
Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust at the Department of Justice, opened the conference by ruminating on the standard used to determine whether a business has achieved monopoly status. “The suggestion is that perhaps [anti-trust] enforcers should broaden the consumer welfare lens to think about effects on democracy or expression,” Delrahim said.
“We shouldn’t go down that road,” he said in response. “Enforcement actions purportedly aimed at supporting our democracy carry too great a risk of inadvertently undermining our constitutional values.
“We don’t need to go beyond the consumer welfare standard — it can get the job done on its own,” he continued. “There are serious risks to democracy in abandoning the consumer welfare standard..”
Political parties, Delrahim said, each have their own ideas of what is good for democracy, and by changing the anti-trust rules to include constitutionally protected rights, we run the risk of those parties using non-trust–related motives to hinder businesses from growing. Instead of thinking about what’s best for the consumer, enforcers may be compelled to think about what’s best for their party and politics.
What kind of business can be a monopoly?
“The argument is that, ‘because [the platforms] are free, [they] can’t be a monopoly that’s harmful to consumers,’” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next.
But, as Kint noted, the platforms do have a monopoly on data — and, thus, on ad dollars. Google and Facebook collect data from millions of people, giving them an edge when it comes to attracting advertisers. In fact, combined, the platforms receive between 85 and 90 percent of all digital ad spending.
Meanwhile, Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, said that the platforms aren’t the enemy. “Google and Facebook are simply the most successful companies to capitalize on the fall of newspapers,” he said.
News organizations were struggling long before the digital platforms came along, Smith explained, so we can’t blame them for all of our problems. In many respects, they’re simply savvier businesses than we expected them to be.
Does that clear the platforms of monopoly status? It depends on how you choose to think of what makes a monopoly.
Who should decide what’s news?
Julia Angwin, an investigative reporter most recently with ProPublica, noted that one of the issues media companies have with the platforms is that they are now determining what is news. “Most journalism is hot takes. There’s a huge pile-on of everyone writing the same story,” Angwin said. “These are all attempts to game the algorithm. Essentially, journalism has become a game of how to game the algorithm as opposed to what is the news that you would need to [know].
“But the thing that is most disturbing is the outsourcing of trust to the tech companies. Essentially, we as the news business have said, ‘You know what? The tech companies are going to get to decide what is the trustworthy news.’ They get to rank it, they get to sort it, they get to tell you what is the most important thing.”
Angwin noted that while the groups of people who determined what went into a newspaper in the past weren’t always right about what was the most important news, at least there was intentionality behind their decisions. Now as a society, we’re letting an algorithm — something devoid of intent or original thought — make those decisions, and the algorithms have taken over the news business.
Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times Corporation, later noted that “platforms strip away essential signals about editorial intentionality,” arguing, like Angwin, that while journalists and editors aren’t perfect, algorithms are at least as flawed as their human counterparts.
Is one system better than the other? It depends on your goal. If the goal is to garner the most traffic, it’s clear that the algorithms will help you achieve that, but if the goal is to deliver the most pertinent news, that might not be the case.
Are journalists part of the problem?
Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp, said that the media may be part of the problem of “algorithmic angst,” as he called the platform issue. “Media must also tend to its reputation,” he said. “Our reporters have to create compelling content and be seen to have the objective of being objective. That is particularly the case in an age of bluster and bombast. Our journalists have to be renaissance reporters willing to traverse platforms to ensure that the story is told where people are reading or listening or watching.
“Journalists should be wary of being too self-referential or self-reverential,” he added. “Journalism is about society, not about self.”
Only when journalists are willing to take responsibility for their part in the platform problem can we find a real solution.