Yesterday, my cofounder wrote a controversial post on this blog, presenting a case for news publishers to limit -- or remove -- their reporting from Facebook and Google. The responses were immediate and plentiful, but fascinatingly different depending on the audience.
On Hacker News, a tech- and startup-focused forum, the link rose to the top of the list before being “flagged” and removed from the front page. The comments there took a more pragmatic, technical approach to the problem, from “The technical capability already exists in the form of robots.txt and the referer header,” to constant reminders that news organizations need this traffic.
On the r/journalism subreddit, we were hit from the other side. Why not just “nationalize the press so we can quit with the hand-wringing?” suggested one commenter, while another lamented that “this idea disenfranchises young journalists who don’t have any name credibility and recognition and need an established platforms [sic] gravitas to help establish them.”
If ever there was a good illustration of the disconnect we face in trying to make journalism sustainable again, this is it. The tech side that constantly proclaims “information wants to be free,” and sees pay-for-journalism as a solved problem through Substack, and the jaded newsroom audience who sees another tech platform trying to come in and get them financially hooked.
The problem, of course, is that it is not a problem equally felt across these camps. The Hacker News crowd is absolutely correct when they say that news organizations need the traffic coming from social media and aggregators -- they do! -- but that is a sign of addiction, not a healthy ecosystem. And the journalist demographic has every reason to assume the worst, because they have been hurt before.
The economics of this are simple.
A few decades ago, people subscribed to newspapers, written on paper, that were delivered every morning. The subscription fee never fully covered the cost of running a newspaper; ads appeared between articles, and that subscription base guaranteed an audience for the sponsors. These publications naively started putting their articles online for free -- if advertising could buoy their business up until this point, why would the web be any different? As the ad market matured, CPMs increased, and slowly, internet advertising started to represent real money.
But then things went viral. Lots of things. People started sharing news articles they read (or didn’t read) on social media. Tech companies tweaked their sorting algorithms to get content to eyeballs -- and did so incredibly successfully. But, this created our first problem.
Problem 1: Hard news doesn't trend
Admittedly, this is only a problem depending on what side of the fence you sit.
If your goal -- like that of any number of tech companies -- is to get content in front of your users that they will engage with -- then this has been an unmitigated success. However, if you are reporting out a story for a specific audience, not being able to reach them is problematic.
At this point, the tech side may wonder why if your articles are so great, the audience isn’t seeking it out. The answer, I suspect, is that the audience does not know it is there.
Virtually any digital editor will tell you that most traffic bypasses the homepage. Users rarely think “I wonder what is happening today?” and seek out the news site; rather, they are told what is happening by the sorting algorithms and walk away feeling like they are updated. That works to a degree, except that hard news -- especially local news -- does not trend.
No one shares the summary of last night’s city council meeting. Even the most damning investigative report will only get so far if it is focused on a small area; users outside the area just won’t amplify it.
Problem 2: Fake News
What does trend? The outrageous, crazy things that you want to share with the world. Of course, that’s not to say all viral headlines are fake, but at this point it seems pretty well accepted that many are.
Because anyone can write and post anything, these wholly fabricated, or hyper-partisan stories are usually placed in the same regard as those that are rigorously reported and fact-checked. They are then forced to compete against each other for attention.
Worse yet, these posts can be so malignant that it impugns the reputation of “the media” -- because now you cannot believe what you read.
Problem 3: Clickbait
How do you compete then? By stooping lower. It means publishers resort to writing clickbait headlines to grab a second or two of user attention, and then covering the article page in more clickbait links to keep them there.
It can even creep into the editorial decisions: Knowing what people are searching for or clicking on can shape what reporters are assigned.
Problem 4: All the ads
Why do drivers in your area need to know about that new law? What celebrity finally “broke [their] silence?” I know I won’t believe what happens next.
These ads are annoying. These ads are detrimental to the user experience that any publication wants. But these ads are needed -- they are a symptom of the addiction. When the flow of users becomes constricted, these organizations have no other choice but to exploit their traffic for as much as it is worth; it’s survival.
Those ads in between articles in the print newspaper? They still exist, but they are now sold by Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Money is still being made off of the reader, it just is not going to the people doing the reporting. And partnerships between newsrooms and tech giants are generally for big, national outlets, leaving the local newsroom to suffer.
Problem 5: Brain drain
As awful as this all is for the casual news consumer, it is worse for the people working on it all day everyday. No one wants assignment-by-SEO. No one wants the ads all over the place. And most of all, no one wants the layoffs. So those that can are fleeing to Substack, or creating their own publications.
That is great for them, and I wish them all the best. But as that Reddit commenter pointed out, that only works for reporters who have made a name for themselves. It is much more common to follow someone because you like their ideas than someone who you think reports out a story well.
What about all of those wide eyed, young, idealistic reporters looking to make a name for themselves? What about all of the important stories they are covering? Will now fewer people go to the legacy publications once the big names jump ship?
What we're doing
This is why Xana wrote what she did, and made the case firms should pay up. First, it got your attention enough to rise above the noise (a requirement, as discussed above). And it also presented this point: The traffic coming from big tech, while needed for local news’ survival, is also killing it. The answer cannot be found in robots.txt -- it comes from rethinking the model of how we find our users, and how we interact with them.
Forth is our answer.
We want to take what is appealing about discovering news on social, and replicate it, but with reporters we know and trust. We want to help them build personal brands because we know younger generations tend to trust real people over companies or institutions (think: influencers). We want to rev-share, not because we think it is a selling point, but to align our incentives with those of the newsrooms; we both succeed together.
We will be launching soon in markets where we feel we have enough reporters to make using our app worthwhile. If you are a reporter or represent a newsroom, we would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to read what our partners are writing, please sign up for the waiting list -- we will let you know as soon as we are live in your area.