Local newspapers are laying journalists and editorial staff off left and right. Alt-weeklies are becoming rare and hollowed institutions, as cities like Baltimore; New York City; San Francisco; Oakland, California; Los Angeles; Providence, Rhode Island; Boston, Philadelphia, and others have either lost their papers or emaciated their newsrooms to the point where they’re no longer recognizable. There’s such a shortage of local news that Facebook’s “Today In” local news section found that one-third of Americans lived in areas where there wasn’t even enough local news to make use of the new feature.
So, Facebook and Google have decided to try to help. Both companies have separately pledged $300 million to various initiatives aimed at reviving local news across the U.S. Most recently, Google announced that it’s partnering with McClatchy to fund three local, digital-only publications as part of the company’s Local Experiments Project. To discuss the death of local news and the recent dual attempts from Facebook and Google to help resuscitate it, April Glaser and Will Oremus of If Then spoke with Emily Bell, the founding director of Columbia University School of Journalism’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Oremus: We have the news, which you wrote about last week in Columbia Journalism Review, that Google is partnering with the news company McClatchy to fund three local news entities, in communities of less than 500,000 people. There was also more news this week where Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg revealed that the company is thinking of paying news organizations to produce what it calls “high quality news content.” It might put that in a special tab of the Facebook News Feed, I guess to distinguish it from all the low-quality content you get in your normal news feed. So, what’s up with these tech companies? Can they actually make a positive difference? Can they help repair some of the damage that their business models have inadvertently done?
Emily Bell: You know, if a bull comes into a china shop and it breaks everything and then the bull tries to put it back together, that’s not an ideal situation. So, what you have here are both Facebook and Google independently of each other, but clearly in competition of some sort, saying they will spend $300 million each on local journalism over the next three years through various initiatives. And you know, yes, it is better that local journalism has money than not. I think that there is a principle here that says even though these might not be the fault of technology companies, they are the people with the money and they have caused this deficit to some extent, local news is saying, “Yeah, they should pay.” Should they be the ones directly paying and controlling what the news looks like? I feel very uneasy about that and I don’t really think that they should be. I think that they should be taxed or they should be paying into some kind of separate entity, which can then refund parts of the news ecosystem.
April Glaser: I want to get into the various incentives that the different parties that we’re talking about here have. So like what good is it for Google and Facebook to invest in saving local news? Is this really going to make them more money? Is this going to be a PR hack for them? I can see why it would help local newsrooms that are incredibly struggling to hire journalists or to keep journalists hired at all, or to keep their doors open and keep publishing. They need the money. But it seems like there’s a real mix of incentives here. I don’t know how it will even benefit Google and Facebook because it seems like they’re just being nice.
Emily Bell: Yeah, so first of all, I don’t think they’re just being nice. Let’s assume just for two seconds we’re not profound cynics about this, and imagine yourself in that situation. There is an incentive for particular technology platforms that rely on people’s attention and time being spent on them to have an information environment that is not completely screwed up. Now, we know that now because over the past five to 10 years these companies have been largely allowing information environments to become incredibly screwed up. What that has led to, principally, is a threat of regulation. So if we move from the non-cynical, hey, they’re doing this because they want to do good and they want to rebuild something that they are close to, which is high-quality information that people can share, things that people can read, we move slightly more into the realistic/cynical arena and say we’ve got an election up in 2020.
There was a piece out the other day that said people are concerned about privacy and data. They’re concerned about fake news. They’re concerned about all sorts of things and the power of platforms. We also had a candidate, Elizabeth Warren, who has pretty credible and very detailed plan for how she would regulate platforms and there’s a growing lobby around the idea that they should be regulated in terms of antitrust—in other words, just broken up.
So is it coincidental that the companies are spending money on this right now? I don’t think it is coincidental. I think it is entirely an agenda driven by the public pressure and the political pressure to change something before they get regulated. Mark Zuckerberg has been on his “Hey, everybody, we should be regulated” tour this week, which is also a weird thing to perceive. But it’s just showing how heightened the sense of alarm is within these companies about what might be coming down the pipe from lawmakers.
April Glaser: I realize the amount of power that [these platforms] have. What are your thoughts then on the ability for news organizations to retain editorial sovereignty with an investor like Google and Facebook? We’re talking about two of the most powerful companies in the world. This money isn’t coming from nowhere.
Emily Bell: You know, at the moment it’s a really small amount of funding. That’s the other thing. Let’s not get carried away about how much money they are lavishing on the news sector.
But it’s weird. We’ve studied this for the last five years at the Tow Center. We speak a lot to people within publishing companies who deal with the platforms and also with platform people who are dealing with publishers. And how that kind of symbiotic relationship changes the power dynamic is really interesting.
Development and innovation within news organizations has, I think, been completely changed by say the presence of Google money. So on the one hand they will say “Hey, virtual reality is the next big thing.” Or “pivot to video” being the most obvious example of this. And newsrooms change their structure. They change their innovation budgets. They change their editorial staff. And then the platforms just change their minds. So at a local level, whether your sovereign owner is the algorithm that you’re trying to get to recognize your work and show it to a readership, or whether it’s this theoretically kind of stream of revenue that you’ll get from this amazingly rich and beneficent patron, it changes the orientation of the journalism.
And my worry is that independence is pretty fragile. I think we’re in danger particularly in the U.S. of saying, “Hey, you know what? We haven’t really figured out civic media and we don’t fund public media particularly well and a lot of it is very antediluvian. If the tech companies are going to move into this space without us having a proper conversation about what we want the civic media to look like, that’s fine.” And I think it’s absolutely not fine. A company like Google, which also has contracts with the government, it has contracts with local government, it has self-driving cars it wants to put on the roads, it’s buying up property around the country, it’s had fiber experiments in cities … these people should be being investigated by local news. They should not be the platform on which news is dependent, and I think that is a looming problem for us as journalists because we can very easily get addicted to the money.
April Glaser: I want to talk about solutions because we’ve heard a lot of kind of diagnoses: local news cannot sustain itself. Some may say that’s because of a lack of innovation from newsrooms for a long time. Some may point to the current internet ecosystem. Some may say it’s a mix. Whatever the cause, we need to do something about it because stuff isn’t getting reported and journalists aren’t employed as much as they should be and, as a result, democracy suffers, right? We all suffer. You’ve talked about the idea of an endowment, which would be kind of a step back from direct funding from companies. You also discussed civic media and that that would mean kind of public media or community media, a way to kind of have municipal newsrooms. Can you talk us through some of these solutions that you’ve thought out? Because you’re one of the few people that’s actually thought of what we can do about this.
Emily Bell: Yeah, sure. I think that America’s not typically well-served by the fact it’s one of the few places that hasn’t had to think through or just has chosen not to think through having public media as a really significant part of the market. So where I come from in the U.K., I would say the BBC is roughly about 30 percent of the media market. Lots of people think that’s not very healthy, but on the other hand you have these preexisting funded organizations which theoretically you could actually get to innovate to create new models to support an ecosystem when it’s trying to get from A to B.
So when I was talking about an endowment that the tech companies paid into, it could be what they call hypothecated taxation where you take a small percentage of the tax that you charge these companies and put it into an isolated fund that would work to support media, which is basically nonprofit. It’s aimed at reporting on your local council or local city hall. You know, it has that function where it tells you if your water is clean, if your schools are running properly, all of that kind of stuff. And the funding mechanisms for that, the problem is, there’s no really sort of established precedent for how you would handle those funds, who would get to decide where they were distributed. But the principle is not that complicated.
The second part of this is whether or not there’s any political will in America to create a much stronger and more independent public or civic media because America’s culturally very different to Europe. You guys do not like government interference in your press. In fact, you have it specifically, if you like, that the First Amendment certainly works against the idea that you would pass a law that in some way changes or restricts speech. But there’s nothing to say that you can’t make a positive intervention in the market. So some kind of New Deal—New Deals are very fashionable at the moment, we have AOC with her Green New Deal.
Where is the New Deal for civic media? Where is the New Deal that says if you want to start a small community newsroom, or if you want to start kind of a statewide network that there would be some way of funding it, administering it, some kind of funding for innovation? None of that exists at the moment. A lot of it is left to local NPR stations, which actually have been pretty innovative. And that feels to me just like a fundamental problem when you have such an unstable commercial environment and I would say everything we’ve seen from Facebook certainly and increasingly from Google and YouTube is that we don’t have a stable information environment at the moment.
April Glaser: No, sustainability is really key here. Just to give a personal reflection on this, I worked with a group of people for many years to pass a law. We actually passed a law in 2011 that allocated all unused FM spectrum for local community stations. It was the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history. These stations are now going on the air, and they have no money, and they’re not allowed to have advertising because they’re community-licensed, so they have to get local underwriting. And it just seems like we’re structurally set up in such a way so that there’s just no way for hyperlocal newsrooms to establish themselves.
Emily Bell: Yeah, so first off, you did God’s work there. Some of these can be structural interventions. Like if we think about the current environment and we think about the platforms, the thing they do not do at the moment is make it possible to make a living from reporting high quality news on their platforms. And part of that is actually just a fundamental design flaws. The things that are prioritized on platforms are interesting, viral content. They return more money and the cost of creating the product is not taken into account in the platform design. When you have Mark Zuckerberg this week saying, “We should maybe be funding high-quality journalism directly,” it’s like, “Why don’t you just change your platform so that if people are doing good work, they get paid for it?”
That’s a design problem. It’s not a question of him picking people out of a lineup and saying, “Yeah, I’ll have that article,” because they don’t know. They are not journalists. They don’t really know what they’re doing in this arena. And so I think your point about, as I say, doing amazing work with spectrum, those are the kinds of things we have to do, but then we have to have the funding as well. You can’t, just as you say, have a system of distribution that you don’t then pay creators and reporters for. Paying reporters is what this is all about. You have to pay people to go out and report.