Google, Facebook sidestep credibility duties

By Michael Beach

The Sunday Times

Perth, Australia


We sell credibility.

It’s a mantra I’ve repeated constantly within our business. They are three simple words with enormous meaning.

Credibility is extremely hard to build — but easy to tear apart with bad journalism, bad ads, bad executive decisions.

Robert Thomson spoke about establishing credibility and the commodification of content at the Asia Society.
Robert Thomson spoke about establishing credibility and the commodification of content at the Asia Society.

Every day our journalism enters into a simple but complicated agreement with our readers built on trust. If you believe, like I do, that journalism is at the heart of our businesses, then trust is at the epicentre of that.

Readers trust us to produce quality and reputable journalism in all its forms — from intensive investigations to daily news, entertainment, sport, video, and more. If the readers trust us, then the advertisers will trust us to reach that audience. It’s the handshake agreement we’ve always operated on.

Like the ruthlessness of governments turfed from office on election day, you can never take that trust for granted. And never before, in this era of fake news and programmatic advertising, has trust and credibility been more important.

Which brings us to the widening global debate over Google and Facebook.

Both have taken the convenient legal position of insisting they are tech companies, not media companies. Even though they make more from journalism than most media companies.

As we painfully know, the responsibilities that come with journalism are enormous.

What do you publish? When do you publish? What is important, and what is not? What is right, and what is wrong? What is relevant, and what is not? How do you manage that fine line between being aggressive and cautious? When do you take legal advice, and when do you back your own judgement?

It’s difficult and never-ending.

So why would the world’s biggest companies — that make billions from our journalism — want to take any responsibility? We now know what has been suspected for a long time: Digital advertising was being shoveled into the far reaches of the Internet where no one bothered to look.

But as far as the advertiser was concerned, they were reaching some stupendously made-up numbers.

It’s a throwback to the days when kids delivered pamphlets to letterboxes. Blocks of units — and the local creek — were perfect for dumping plenty in a short amount of time.

But the reality for major brands like Hyundai, McDonald’s, and L’Oreal is even worse. They’ve found their ads served against appalling anti-Semitic and jihadi propaganda. No wonder they’re asking for some accountability for their dollars.

News Corp has been fighting against the modern-day equivalent of 18th-century high seas pirates for many years now. Initially, its protests were written off as sour grapes. Old media failing to understand both digital and modern audiences.

But, interestingly, now the major advertisers are starting to line up beside News Corp. News Corp CEO Robert Thomson is the copy boy who became a successful journalist, editor, and media executive. Yes, he fights for his company’s bottom line, but there’s also an intrinsic part of him that fights for the value and credibility of journalism.

So, his recent speech at the Asia Society in Hong Kong about the big two, with a combined market cap of US$990 billion, was fascinating to read:

“It’s definitely an opportune moment to grapple with the fake and the faux, the flawed and the fallible — these are real issues and have been for a decade or more, but the faux has suddenly become real because the full scale of the changes wrought upon the integrity of news and advertising by digital platforms has become far more clear. The digital duopoly has rewritten the rules in a way that has written much journalism and integrity out of the script.

“Google’s commodification of content, which knowingly, willfully undermined provenance for profit, and then followed by the Facebook stream with its journalistic jetsam and fake flotsam, have created an ecosystem that is dysfunctional and socially destructive.

“Both companies could have done far more to highlight that there is a hierarchy of content, but, instead, they have prospered mightily by peddling a flat earth philosophy that doesn’t wish to distinguish between the fake and the real because they make copious amounts of money from both — for them, free content has been free money.

“And depending on which source you believe, they have about 80% of the digital advertising market and, per one interactive advertising bureau related estimate, well over 90% of the incremental increase in advertising over the past year. The only cost of content for these companies has been lucrative contracts for lobbyists and lawyers, but the social cost of that strategy is far higher, as is becoming painfully and thankfully clear. It is risible, no, no, no, beyond risible, that Google/YouTube, which has earned, literally, hundreds of billions of dollars from other people's’ content, should now be lamenting that it can’t possibly be held responsible for monitoring that content — monetising yes, monitoring no. But, it turns out that free money does come at a price.

“Obviously, we all have to work with these companies, to a gradual lesser extent, and we are hoping, mostly against hope, that they will finally take meaningful action, not only to allow premium content models that fund premium journalism, but also purge their sites of the rampant piracy that undermines creativity. Your business model can’t be simultaneously based on both intimate, granular details about users and no clue whatsoever about rather obvious pirate sites.”

Thomson believes advertising has gone from Mad Men to mad metrics.

But he also has a sense of humour.

He finished his speech with a quote from Groucho Marx: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

About Michael Beach

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