Columbia Journalism Review Series


Part One

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

Disrupting Journalism: How Platforms Have Upended the News

February 13, 2023

By: Michael Karanicolas 

After decades of shrinking revenues, and an increasing expectation among consumers that journalism should be free, the global media industry has reached a crisis point. As legacy news outlets shut down or lay off staff, misinformation and conspiracy theories run rampant, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Trust in our institutions of governance continues to decline, fueling an alarming rise in extremism and political violence across previously stable democracies. In the Global South, the impact of journalism’s decline has been even more striking, with the rise of a new generation of autocrats skilled in manipulating the online conversation to suit their consolidation of power. 

While there is no single cause for the decline in traditional news media, much of the blame has been focused on online platforms, whose profits traditionally have grown even as funding for journalism dries up. There is a connection between these two trends, since the platforms’ control over how we access information means that news media organizations are dependent on them to distribute their products. Facebook and Google have used this to leverage a dominant position over the online advertising market, keeping the lion’s share of profits for themselves and disrupting a key revenue source for supporting journalism.

While the scope of the problem, and its impacts, are clear, the question of what to do about it is much thornier. Governments around the world have proposed a range of legislative and regulatory solutions to strengthen the financial position of the news media industry, generally at the expense of large online platforms. The responses can take the form of direct-subsidy and tax credit programs, as Canada has introduced, or mandates requiring online platforms to negotiate licensing deals with news media outlets, as is the case in Australia. Both efforts are controversial. Any subsidy or tax credit scheme administered by the government must include some form of eligibility requirements, which in turn requires the state to make determinations about who is or is not a journalist, a question that raises deep legal and social questions. If governments are given discretion over who qualifies for funding, this power could be used to punish disfavored political perspectives. But if the threshold for qualifying is too low, it could result in channeling resources to the worst purveyors of misinformation and hate, further degrading the political discourse. Some journalists have also raised concerns that these programs, even if administered fairly, could further erode public confidence in their reporting, by creating a perception that they are beholden to their government or Big Tech paymasters.

There is also a tension between calls to harness the resources of major platforms to support journalism and ongoing antitrust and competition inquiries that view the platforms’ market power as the heart of the problem. There are concerns that a licensing model that ties the future of journalism to the profitability of Big Tech will make it more difficult to break the companies up and further entrench the surveillance-heavy business model they are built around. Every proposed solution involves trade-offs and challenges. However, given the foundational importance of the press to a functioning democracy, and the existential crisis facing newsrooms around the world, inaction is not an option.

This series, which builds on the work of a new Information Policy Lab developed by Courtney Radsch and myself, aims to present a range of global perspectives on the impact of online platforms on the news media industry, and potential solutions to support sustainable journalism and information integrity. The authors were given a relatively free hand to focus on the aspects of the current moment that they felt were most important and to suggest solutions that they think are most likely to bear fruit. Our aim in publishing this is to provide context to the legislative debates taking place in Washington, Brussels, Silicon Valley, and around the world, and to highlight the need for transnational thinking in developing appropriate solutions.

For independent media, a different approach to digital platforms

February 13, 2023

By: Preethi Nallu 

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 94 percent of US-based journalists said they use social media professionally. At the same time, two-thirds of them claimed that social media has a “somewhat” to “very negative” impact on their work.

To claim that digital platforms have irrevocably altered the consumption, distribution, and production of news would not raise any eyebrows. But journalism outlets across the world did not foresee the extent to which social media would affect their reach—in positive and negative ways.

Starting as intermediaries between media websites and users, social media platforms quickly expanded their role to create engagement between content producers and audiences. Today, Tik Tok and Instagram compete with news sites as prime access points for information.

Our own newsroom partners at Report for the World are digital-native local and national outlets that started amid the boom of social media. In their early years, they benefited from easy, free access to their audiences through Facebook and Twitter.

It was no coincidence that “the dizzying growth in the number of lean-structured digital-native media” across the world happened in parallel with the worldwide use of social media, explains Stefano Wrobleski, director at InfoAmazonia,in Brazil—one of our first newsroom partners. It would have been “difficult to distribute [our] content without the platforms,” says Wrobleski. Similarly, when our Hungarian partner Atlatszo started, in 2011, they gathered over ten thousand followers on Facebook very quickly. “Facebook was essential for distributing our stories and content and finding our audiences…and [it] became the number one source of traffic on our website,” says Tamás Bodoky, its editor in chief.


The downside of social media dependence 

Today, Atlatszo has an impressive 120,000 Facebook followers. But actual engagement and reach has fallen. This is largely due to a policy change that came in 2018, when Facebook announced that its algorithm would prioritize “posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions” between friends and family. Other platforms followed suit.

Since then algorithms have been redesigned to disseminate “emotion stirring” content over fact-based stories, Leticia Duarte, a Brazilian journalist and program manager at Report for the World, explains. 

More recently, the continuing influence of social media on journalism has itself been under question, especially as Meta and Twitter experienced drastic changes over November.

At least eleven thousand people—about 13 percent of Meta’s workforce—were let go from the organization in November. With many employees of the Meta Journalism Project being part of the cuts, speculation that the company “is parting ways with journalism” has been rife.

Simultaneously, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter caused a large percentage of its workforce to quit. The press started to preemptively mourn its demise, while calling attention to its integral role in journalism.

The claim that we might be witnessing tectonic shifts in the role of social media giants is gaining ground. But social media, as a distribution channel, is not going anywhere.

Fisayo Soyombo, the founder of our newest Nigerian partner, the Federation of Investigative Journalists (FIJ), says social media remains “a valid crowdsourcing tool” for his team. He points to the power of platforms in “breaking the news,” allowing users to spread the message quickly, and with impact.

Even if Twitter and other giants collapsed, new ones would quickly follow suit, says Duarte. “As soon as the rumors about the Twitter crisis started, for example, users already started looking for alternatives such as Mastodon, Hive, and Koo. The question is which models will prevail, as users, experts, and governments increasingly require more ethics and transparency from the platforms.”

Recent surveys point to a gradual shift away from digital platforms among news consumers in the US. In 2021, 51 percent of Americans said they got their news from digital services, compared with 60 percent in 2022. But, in a majority of the world, digital news is overtaking traditional media, such as radio or television, because of the affordability of smartphones and 4G networks. In large countries like Brazil, India, and Nigeria, where RFW corps members live, a majority are using smartphones to access news. As a direct consequence, digital platforms, including social media, will remain a key source of distribution for newsrooms in the Global South.

As niche, independent media that are acutely affected by the ongoing fluctuations in the social media world, our newsroom partners are devising means of diversifying the types of digital platforms that can distribute and monetize their stories. Simultaneously, they are cutting through the digital noise by diversifying their content—from producing visual stories to increasing audience interaction on platforms. In parallel, they are pursuing different means of exposure and engagement, including different types of collaborations.


Diverse methods of distribution 

When speaking about platform-driven journalism, we tend to think mostly about Meta, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. But digital methods such as newsletter subscriptions, paywalls, and collaborative sites have created audience engagement as well as sustainability for independent media, well before the emergence of social media giants. Search engine optimization tools that increase the visibility of news websites have amplified these efforts.

For hyperlocal media outlet Agencia Mural, in São Paulo, WhatsApp has always been an important means of targeting audiences. This became especially true during the pandemic, when the outlet launched a WhatsApp-based podcast, Em Quarentena, with a five-minute news episode that relayed vital information about the COVID crisis to the community. They produced two hundred episodes, going on to win awards.

Others among our partners have shaped their beats based on direct engagement with audiences. For example, Atlatszo in Hungary hired a Report for the World corps member to cover education, based on the expressed desire of their audiences through their newsletter.

Partnerships between public interest media, within countries and across continents, have also been on the rise.


Collaborations and community building

Local public service media are building new types of coalitions on the ground to counter the dominance of digital platforms. Building intra- and transnational collaborations is helping diversify their distribution and build their reputations. For example, our partner Agência Publica is at the forefront of fostering collaborations, not just in Brazil and Latin America, but across the world. The outlet has a creative-commons policy, with stories often republished and attributed by media in the US and Europe. 

Coalitions are also helping media of different sizes and revenue models counter state repression and corporate encroachment on their spaces. Our newsroom partners in India—The Scroll, The Wire, and the News Minute—cofounded the DigiPub News India Foundation to nurture a “healthier ecosystem” for digital news media, from legal protection to innovation. The News Minute is also creating a membership model, as opposed to subscriptions or paywalls, to create a “community of readers that support independent media.”

Alongside these myriad efforts, this is a good moment to reimagine the layout of digital spaces, where news media can lead as legitimate information providers, instead of vying for attention from users. For this to happen, social media platforms must help users distinguish between content from journalism outlets and other sources of information, and integrate tools for audience engagement and subscribed content. When used as search engines, these platforms must devise better mechanisms to quell misinformation and disinformation. They must enable newsrooms to carry out their work with reach. This is the ideal long-term scenario, which requires concerted efforts from governments, platforms, advertisers, development and rights groups, and users.

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