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The news industry needs to wake up and join the web

4 min read

Emily Bell has a timely opinion piece in The Guardian today about Facebook's ethical responsibility with respect to news:

Facebook’s retreat from news, and the complexities of taking responsibility for the type of content circulating on its platform, has many implications for press organisations in the US and Europe, but at least in rich, western democracies, its actions can be mitigated by other strategies. In countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar and South Sudan and emerging democracies such Bolivia and Serbia, it is not ethical to plead platform neutrality or to set up the promise of a functioning news ecosystem and then simply withdraw at a whim.

Yes, Facebook needs to recalibrate itself and understand the responsibilities that go alongside its position. But in so much news commentary there's a subtext that megasilos like Facebook, and the internet as a whole alongside them, are some unmovable force of nature that require a reactive response.

The internet is an open platform evolving through collaborative means. The web is open source. All of the paradigms we've come to use across software have evolved over time, one set of developers iterating on ideas created by another, iterated upon by another set, and so on. Standards on the web are open source. New movements and innovations are typically created by very small groups of people, failing fast and prioritizing running code over consensus, which are then codified by working groups that themselves are made of loose federations of people.

Yes, Facebook et al deeply need to understand their responsibility to democratic society and adjust their objectives in that light. But the news industry need to deeply grok that it isn't subject to the whims of the internet. If organizations lean in, they can materially help shape the platforms that have disrupted their businesses. They're not doomed to be outsiders; they are welcome to join.

At the beginning of Emily's piece, she notes:

The homepage is back, and not just for those chronically old people over 40, but for every news organisation that wants to survive falling off the great Facebook cliff of 2018.

The homepage's return is a very good thing. Any information business needs to have control over its platform. Returning to the feed economy and innovation around new ways to subscribe to information will also be good; let a thousand reader services bloom. I'm still waiting for the first decentralized reader with integrated subscription or per-item content payments, but those are the kinds of developments we need. And they're the kinds of developments that need to have publisher voices included - or even to be driven by publisher organizations.

Why were news organizations so dependent on one company's algorithmic policies to begin with? Yes, they capitulated to insane supplier power, and yes, it looks like a horrible decision in hindsight (as well as to those of us who worked in open technology at the time). But their business models were collapsing, and it was an easy answer. Most of us would probably have made similar decisions under similar pressures. But it's time to move on.

Publishers need to be supporting and collaborating with teams building products, perhaps through organizations like Matter (selfish plug, but also, the partner program really works). They need to be supporting the evolution of technology platforms by joining organizations like the W3C and participating in groups like WHATWG.

And finally, they need to start collaborating by building the software they want to see in the world, under an open source license, in a way that allows all of them to benefit. It's not about building something that draws a direct profit; instead, they can help create an ecosystem that better supports their current businesses, and provides a clearer framework for supporting them as their businesses evolve into the future. They need to hire teams to build an ecosystem that holistically supports them, and in turn, democracy.

Because honestly, Facebook has put journalism in peril. And there's no such thing as democracy, or freedom, without it.