Over six weeks in late 2017, I visited news publishers in 13 cities in the South Pacific, Latin America, Europe, and North America. These were disparate publishers with little in common other than their membership in the International News Media Association (INMA). My job: learn their priorities and channel back to them our global network’s best practices.

Yet instead of a pied piper, I felt like a psychiatrist. While publishers were fast rallying around digital subscriptions and newsrooms were embracing content economics like never before, there were eye-bulging moments surrounding the recent Facebook algorithm change that caused a hysteria in newsrooms like I had never seen before. Was this confusion? Was this anger? Was this howling at the moon?

At INMA's World Congress in New York in May, this panel started the discussion on digital platforms. From left to right: John Boynton of Torstar, Rebecca Grossman-Cohen of The New York Times, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten, Pam Siddall of Advance Local, Jason Washing of Google, and Jason White of Facebook.
At INMA's World Congress in New York in May, this panel started the discussion on digital platforms. From left to right: John Boynton of Torstar, Rebecca Grossman-Cohen of The New York Times, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten, Pam Siddall of Advance Local, Jason Washing of Google, and Jason White of Facebook.

Since my meetings were often with newsrooms or management teams or even “all employee” town halls, I couldn’t predict where the questions would come from. On this trip, there was a healthy slice of “what’s going on with Facebook and Google.” Twitter got a few eye-rolls. Though they were different platforms with different objectives, problems with one platform seemed to rub off on all platforms. There was both amazement and anger — often in the same words, phrases, and questions. 

Were members asking me to be a soothsayer for the big platforms? 

Later in the trip, the INMA Board of Directors met with Google representatives. The faucet of grievances from news publishers was, from my perspective, overwhelming. The Google representatives patiently answered even the pointy-tipped questions — made less pointy by a round of beers. Some thought the answers were stock answers, while others appreciated the outreach. The one-hour meeting stretched to two hours and spilled over into an evening function. There were things that needed to be said. 

In subsequent gatherings of the INMA Board of Directors, the linear and predictable direction of the meetings inevitably was interrupted by the sharp points I saw on my world tour. The breadth of publisher-platform issues was staggering. Where to grab hold? Where to prioritise? What could INMA, as a global organisation with no lobbying capabilities or desires to lobby, contribute to the pervasive subject of creating a path forward with our platform partners?

Additional meetings with Facebook and Google representatives were informative, constructive, tough, blunt, helpful — yet broad. We promised to find ways to sync, but at what level? On what subjects? How to reconcile the love-hate mood of our Board? What in the world might INMA have to contribute? 

What began to emerge in 2018 was an idea: Could INMA bring together the breadth of the publisher-platform relationship into a single document or initiative? Could we crowdsource our members and let them tell us what the priority issues are? Could we synthesise what our broad international network was witnessing in the legal and regulatory environments—since, thanks to the Internet, the Big Tech platforms are all global, as are the rules publishers must live by (i.e., GDPR in Europe becomes the global standard for privacy)? Could we help navigate the constant stream of nuances and opportunities in programmes like the Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative while simultaneously identifying areas of improvement in the relationship? 

And how to capture that strange feeling that the publisher-platform relationships are no longer the purview of legal departments and lobbyists — that managing the relationships were tasks thrusting themselves into media company board meetings, management meetings, and even operational meetings? 

As we waded into what INMA now calls the Digital Platform Initiative in 2019, we were confronted daily by the enormous reach of the publisher-platform relationship. We couldn’t break the breadth conundrum. A well-intentioned panel discussion at the May New York World Congress of News Media was more about publisher grievances than platform solutions — and that was our fault. Perhaps we should have picked a few key issues and drilled down.

Robert Whitehead, author of INMA's digital platforms report, putting the finishing touches on the report just before its release.
Robert Whitehead, author of INMA's digital platforms report, putting the finishing touches on the report just before its release.

So, how to smartly connect the dots for news publishers on the dizzying array of pain points and business opportunities that partnering with Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and more present us? 

How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship,” released last week by INMA, is a first step toward that goal. Author Robert Whitehead — empowered by a strong committee consisting of Damian Eales of News Corp Australia, John Boynton of Torstar, Espen Egil Hansen of Aftenposten/Schibsted, and Maribel Perez Wadsworth of the USA Today Network/Gannett — has tried to distill the relationship through dozens of interviews and analyses of regulatory reports that has led to a narrower spectrum. But it’s still too broad. It’s a first step, and we hope to augment this step via INMA blogs and Webinars in the months ahead. We all want to get smarter and better.

The committee and Robert were hardly unanimous. The report is too strong. The report is too weak. Too much direction. Not enough direction. Too long. Too short. Too much of this. Too little of that. The only unanimity was to put this mighty synthesis out there so that these “unavoidable business partners” can get past the breadth conundrum and work together to rebuild the business of journalism. 

Flaws and all, INMA is pleased to put forward for your consideration “How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship.” It is a slow and deliberate read, hardly the compact best-practice report for which INMA is famous. Yet it is a necessary read if publishers are to understand the landscape in which their newly digital businesses operate. It is a necessary read if we are ever going to line up the puzzle pieces of the relationships and make actionable the issues that will allow journalism to thrive in the decades ahead. 

Publishers and platforms must work together to better bolster the journalism ecosystem. Yet we must first get on the same page across the breadth of issues. That’s what this report aspires to do.

This article is from the foreword to the new INMA report, “How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship.”