Awkwardness often comes with growth. Check out any middle school yearbook or 4-month-old German Shepherd if you need evidence.

So when you bring 400+ media executives from around the world and put them in the same room (and stage) with Facebook and Google, a little awkwardness is simply unavoidable. 

Several moments during last week’s INMA World Congress of News Media in New York felt like the start of a joke: “400 news media executives, Facebook, and Google walk into a bar ...” First, let me point out that Facebook and Google are INMA members and partners. That is a new feeling. And bringing together media executives and platform executives in the same room feels important right now.

Let’s start with Facebook hosting our opening reception at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), kicking off World Congress. Patrick Walker, Facebook’s director of media partnerships for Europe, the Middle East and Asia, offered an olive branch to the hundreds of media executives in attendance:

Speaking later on the World Congress stage, Walker acknowledged some of Facebook’s challenges:

“We came to a realisation this year that making the world more open and connected doesn’t necessarily mean it becomes a better place. Because there are lots of different forces at work. There are lots of different ways in which technology can be used of course for good and for bad.

“It’s not that we didn’t know that before. But I think that we found, through some of the experiences we lived through, there were things that we need to address better: We need to be more transparent. We needed to show up more often. We needed engage. We needed to debate. We needed to hire people to be in markets, to speak different languages and help share a little bit more about how we work and the products we’re building. And most importantly, to get feedback.”

At one point during the conference, Futurist Amy Webb suggested news media companies remove their content from Facebook completely. 

Later, Nathalie Sajous, director of U.S. news and publishing for Google’s Global Partnerships, took the stage as part of a panel discussion on native advertising. This was after a keynote speaker at the conference advised media companies to go after Google and Facebook based on taxes, their ethics, and anything else you’ve got on them that you can call disgraceful. “It isn’t unfair,” Mark Ritson said. “It’s business.” There was also lots of talk about the Google/Facebook duopoly at World Congress.

“I think I should start off by addressing some of the thought-provoking conversations that happened in the past two days,” Google’s Sajous said. “The first part being, we really are here to partner. I was invited on this stage to talk about native. But for context, Google is really committed to partnering with publishers, especially in this deep-challenging time for journalism, in growing a sustainable business together.” 

And then came the Global Awards Dinner when Aftenposten won “Best In Show” for its for “#DearMark: How Aftenposten Stood Up Against Facebook” entry, a campaign transparently acknowledged by Facebook's Walker at MoMA two nights earlier. Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief/CEO of Aftenposten, accepted the award — fittingly because it was his letter to Facebook that was at the center of the campaign.

Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief/CEO of Aftenposten, wrote a very public letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief/CEO of Aftenposten, wrote a very public letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

Hansen had this to say at the awards’ dinner last week:

“I think the relationship between traditional media and new platforms is maybe the most important discussion we ever had in this business. And we have to strike the right balance. For me, the longer-term goal has always been and should be independence — independence for journalism because that’s what journalism needs, true independence.

“That does not mean we can live in a bubble. So I think the discussion that we started during this INMA Congress may be the best ever. Having Google and Facebook in the room is really meaningful. So, I like to think about it like this: If you go to bed with the elephant and it moves, you can find yourself in a really tight spot. So, better start with a little kiss on the chin.”

The following day, Hansen posted on Facebook (oh, the irony) a slew of thanks, a bit of positive feedback for Facebook, and a mention of some unfinished business.

He thanked the photographer of the famous photo, the editor who put the photo on Aftenposten’s Facebook page (who was temporarily banned from Facebook), Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg (who publicly supported Aftenposten), the 9-year-old girl in the photo (Phan Thi Kim Phuc), and the colleagues who helped his cause along the way.

“Eventually,” he continued, “I’ll be generous enough to give Facebook a little praise. One of the main points in the letter to Mark Zuckerberg was that the company has been practically unavailable when it has been criticised. In 13 years, Facebook has grown into a global powerhouse in a pace and in a scale we haven’t seen before in history. With that position comes great responsibility.

“After the debate about censorship, echo chamber, and fake news ... Facebook [is] getting a bit better. Zuckerburg has notified [the media] that he will make a radical change of Facebook. Good intentions are an important start.

“Zuckerberg still hasn’t responded to my letter, but there, dear Mark, it’s not too late.”

Stay tuned. This is only the beginning of the new intersections. INMA is embracing its role as a bridge because we are all in this ecosystem together. Yes, it all has a unique feel to it. But that’s OK. Like middle school, there is much to learn.