17 May 2015

Why tech companies think they can do news…

…and how traditional news organisations can fight back.

A few years ago, Alex Thomson and I covered a story about a horrific child abuse video posted on Facebook. It showed a baby being repeatedly slapped, and it was stomach-turning, for us and for many Facebook users.

We told Facebook we were covering the story, and their response was a spirited defence of their hosting of the video.

That struck me as weird: the clip was clearly in breach of their terms and conditions and should have been removed, which is what Facebook subsequently did.

In the days after, I started mulling why the social media company had tried so hard to defend their hosting of the footage, risking bad PR in the process. I had a dawning realisation which, at first, scared the pants off me.

Facebook sees itself as a news publisher (and as such, publishing shocking content is what you sometimes have to do).

“Of course Facebook is a news outlet”, you might say, “why else would they create a News Feed of your friends’ activity?”

But here’s the thing: as a traditional news person, I’ve always made a distinction between “real news” and “tittle tattle”.

Thousands die in an earthquake? Real news. You photograph your a tasty dinner? Tittle tattle. Yes, Facebook may regard itself as a news service, but that’s not “real news”, I thought.

My distinction is wrong-headed, according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and, I suspect, the people running many media tech companies. Zuckerberg’s view is neatly summed up in a quote he reportedly said when launching News Feed:

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

Whose side are you on? Mine, or Mark Zuckerberg’s?


You’re going to face increasing pressure to decide, because tech companies are becoming ever more involved in news. In the past few weeks we’ve seen Facebook announce it’s going to start hosting news organisations’ material (ostensibly so users can access the stories quicker), and Google funding work on new models of journalism at several major European news outlets.

I understand the appeal of tech companies’ involvement in news: they have a lot of money, and they have massive audiences. But I also believe the traditional news industry must fights its corner if journalists like me are going to hang onto our jobs and our salaries, and I’ve got a pretty clear idea of how we can do it.

Man vs machine

The problem with many tech companies is that their business models are based on relevance; they know what you like because they look at what you liked in the past.

For a lot of news output, that works just fine: you follow Arsenal, you probably want news about Arsenal, along with any teams, players, managers, etc that come into contact with the team. It’s not unfeasible for a computer not only to gather news that’s relevant to you, but to write the stories as well (in fact, that’s already happening).

But relevance as judged by technology has a fatal flaw when it comes to news: it will struggle ever to generate an exclusive.

Those world-shaking stories (Thalidomide, MPs expenses, FIFA bribery, Snowden), will almost always be beyond the grasp of automated tech, because there’s no precedent for them. It takes a human journalist to spot an exclusive and judge its relevance, let alone write such a piece.

When an exclusive breaks, social media technology is invaluable in driving traffic to the story, but without journalists, there’s no story in the first place.

And the tech industry’s problem with exclusives goes deeper: many tech media companies are supported through advertising. The advertisers also rely on relevance to gain a consistent profit (“I know this person likes Arsenal stories, so I can stick adverts for football shirts on the web page he visits, and he’ll probably buy one”).

An exclusive gives no indication of its worth to advertisers, so its value cannot be judged in advance.

Lastly, exclusives are vital in a world where the vast majority of news is available instantly and for free, because people will only come to you for something they can’t get anywhere else.

The fightback

I believe newsrooms now need a laser-like focus on exclusives. They just can’t beat technology when it comes to general, day-to-day news (though that must still form part of the mix). Funding long-term, investigative journalism is expensive, but unless it happens news outlets risk being swallowed up by technology which locates, judges and writes news stories automatically.

For now, media tech companies and traditional news outlets are forming productive partnerships. But we should consider what the future territory of news will look like.

One of the frequent effects of technology is to burn the middle ground. In the music industry a small cadre of rock bands rake in record deals and money, while the rump of musicians get by on gigs, promotions, crowd-funding, etc. In the book industry publishers are looking for behemoth authors with sequel potential, while many writers turn to self-publishing to get their work seen.

Perhaps the same thing will happen to journalism. The bulk of news will be gathered, written and promoted by automated technology, while at the other end of the spectrum a small group of expert hacks will focus on exclusives.

To many traditional journalists this will sound far from ideal, but unless their employers start pump-priming the higher-end of this market, we’ll be left with a world of click-bait churnalism in which the rich and powerful will escape scrutiny, and the public will be short-changed as a result.

Follow @geoffwhite247 on Twitter.