Fish or Foul?

Newspaper publishers care about what they print — and pay a price for it.


Thus far in our discussion of newspaper business models, we’ve posited that being the gatekeeper and owning one’s distribution system is desirable, for two reasons.

1) It guarantees that the publisher has control over the news product and can ensure it’s of sufficient quality to fulfill its public service role.

2) It enables the publisher to wring every cent of profit from the distribution of the news product and the sale of ad space, which subsidizes the cost center that is the newsroom.

What would happen if news publishers no longer cared about the first reason, and didn’t have to subsidize any newsroom at all? Certainly seems like a lucrative model.

Are we watching it happen? Not by traditional newspaper publishers, but by new companies playing a mutated form of the traditional role?

Which brings us to the recounting of a robust discussion your host recently had with a dear friend, a former ad director of a daily newspaper, now retired.

In the comfort of his living room, over glasses of wine shared with he and his wife (who remained tactfully quiet and admirably pleasant), the question of whether or not Facebook and Google are publishers boiled over.

I argued that they are; my friend contended that they are not.

The companies are a new form of business, my friend said, a glorified pipe through which content generated by others passes, with a certain amount of revenue, of course, staying behind to build more pipe and fatten the wallets of its owners.

I countered that, since their algorithms dictate which ads and content their servers send out, Google and Facebook are exercising discretion and are therefore acting as publishers, not just pipes.

It’s nary impossible to build a sustainable business model if you don’t understand the marketplace and the nature of your potential competitors. So let’s noodle on here.

A newspaper printing press and its circulation department are akin to the internet service providers (ISPs) that computers use to communicate around the world. Both the press and circulation system and an ISP act as a conduit, a smooth-bore pipe.

The staff of the newspaper, though, determines every bit of news and advertising that does, or does not, go through that pipe. Newspaper publishers exercise discretion.

Google and Facebook do too — your news feed doesn’t just happen, you know — algorithms (which are just coded forms of human logic) create your feed.

Newspaper publishers accept responsibility for what they publish. Google and Facebook don’t even describe themselves using that term.  They are neither fish nor fowl, neither a smooth-bore conduit nor a publisher wholly responsible for the content their servers send out.

We may cry  “Foul!” but theirs is a business model with which we must now compete — or use to our advantage.

UPDATE (02/16/2017)

In a Dec. 15, 2017, post on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the company’s network is more than an elaborate maze of digital plumbing:

“Facebook is a new kind of platform different from anything before it. I think of Facebook as a technology company, but I recognize we have a greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through. While we don’t write the news stories you read and share, we also recognize we’re more than just a distributor of news. We’re a new kind of platform for public discourse — and that means we have a new kind of responsibility to enable people to have the most meaningful conversations, and to build a space where people can be informed.

“With any changes we make, we must fight to give all people a voice and resist the path of becoming arbiters of truth ourselves. I believe we can build a more informed community and uphold these principles.”Mark Zuckerberg

For more on the steps Facebook is taking to do that, take a look at the company’s “News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News.”

Author: TAM

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