Publishing executives from four of the world’s top news media companies were variously frustrated and appreciative, sometimes simultaneously.

The representatives on stage with them from two of the world’s most prolific digital platforms did a good job expressing understanding without defensiveness.

Whether the 75-minute-long public airing of priorities by the news industry actually accomplished anything Thursday at the INMA World Congress of News Media is an open question. For one thing, while Google and Facebook representatives were present, representatives from Apple and Amazon were not, though the companies were mentioned often.

During the lunch break afterward, INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson reflected that it had at least been a decent start — a start to a much needed, much larger, and certainly much longer sit-down conversation to come.

One thing the session did accomplish was previewing an upcoming INMA initiative and major report, which are expected to launch in the weeks and months ahead. They are said to focus on what programme leader Robert Whitehead of McPherson Media Group in Australia called the “news industry’s techlash.”

The Thursday INMA session fed off of preliminary poll results about publishers' conflicting attitudes toward digital platforms.
The Thursday INMA session fed off of preliminary poll results about publishers' conflicting attitudes toward digital platforms.

It was preliminary poll results on publishers’ conflicting attitudes toward digital platforms that formed the basis for the non-confrontational confrontation for which Whitehead served as moderator. Participants involved in the conversation were:

  • John Boynton, CEO of Canadian publishing house Torstar.
  • Espen Egil Hansen, CEO and editor-in-chief of Norway’s Aftenposten.
  • Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, vice president for platform strategy and partnerships at The New York Times.
  • Pam Siddall, chief operating officer of enterprise services at U.S. news media enterprise Advance Local.
  • Jason Washing, managing director for global partnerships at Google.
  • Jason White, director of North American news partnerships for Facebook.

The feedback catalogued and ranked by the media executives were mostly well-known and included:

  • A fair partnership with the platforms in terms of business models and sharing data.
  • Liability for social media beyond self-regulation.
  • Global tech paying a fair share of local taxes.
  • Platforms slowly creeping into the traditional roles of journalists and editors.
  • The diminishing value of original journalism.
  • A fundamental misalignment of strategic interests between media and the platforms.
  • The need for news media to be able to reliably monetise their proprietary content.
  • Enforcing media’s copyright, re-use, and distribution rights.
  • A fundamental breakdown in the supply chain economics of news, with so many producers yet too few and too powerful distributors.
  • The extraordinary control search exerts over basic Internet access and use.
  • The concentration of financial, content, and even data control in a few big tech firms.
  • Apple’s domination of iPhone owners’ media access.
  • Apple’s claim on 30% of iPhone news media app revenues.
  • Apple policies on withholding app user data from end-provider media companies.
  • Facebook and Google making sudden, unilateral algorithm changes that drastically affect news traffic and consumption.
  • Google being slow to roll out necessary changes and fixes.
  • Facebook rolling out new features and functionality too often and with insufficient testing.
  • Google’s influence with programmatic advertising systems and standards.

“Obviously the platforms — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon to a lesser degree — have had a really meaningful impact on publishing businesses over the years,” said Grossman-Cohen of The New York Times. “We’re not blind to that and recognise the power of them and the power of their reach in distribution and their ability to bring in audiences.

Rebecca Grossman-Cohen said The New York Times acknowledges that Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon have a significant distribution reach.
Rebecca Grossman-Cohen said The New York Times acknowledges that Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon have a significant distribution reach.

“But we know things have shifted over the last several years as The Times and many others, probably most others, have become more invested in consumer revenue through subscriptions, through membership, and other means,” she said. “So this inherently means that publishers need to have a known and understood brand and product and value; that we need to form direct relationships with readers and viewers and listeners; and that our readers need to be able to transact easily and quickly in an ongoing way.”

For their part, Washing and White expressed strong desires on the part of their respective tech employers to work with publishers on these issues and more.

“One of our big product investments over the past couple of years has been the development of a paywall solution within Instant Articles,” Facebook’s White said. “We think there’s an opportunity there to optimise, to get people to that paywall more efficiently than can happen on the mobile Web where the connection speeds are a little bit slower. This is not going to be the perfect solution for everyone. But for some publishers, this would probably be a pretty good way to go in as much as they’re interested in leaning into our platform.

“We developed this with publishers, and we heard a couple things right up front, and we just heard them echoed in what you said,” White said. “One is, we want to keep 100% of that revenue, and we want to have a direct relationship with that consumer. So we architected the product in such a way that both of those things happened. The discovery process is within Instant Articles. But when that transaction takes place, it actually takes place on that publisher’s Web site, so they keep 100% of that revenue and maintain that direct relationship with that customer.”

“Google, at the end of the day, is really keenly interested in making sure that there’s a corpus of information around the world that’s of the highest quality possible, so that our users can get that information returned back to them,” Washing said. “We have no incentive in seeing your companies fall away. There’s no win for Google in seeing the corpus of information that exists around the world on the Web become a place of dark, bad content that represents an inauthentic view of what’s actually going on in the world. So we have a lot riding on this.”

Jason Washing, managing director for global partnerships at Google, says the platform has no incentive to see media companies fade.
Jason Washing, managing director for global partnerships at Google, says the platform has no incentive to see media companies fade.

Washing also gave a nod to a possible role for government in resolving some issues.

“I am not of the belief that regulation is a bad answer,” the Google representative said. “I think there are a lot of examples over the course of the last several decades in the United States where regulation has provided very productive and healthy purpose in the way that economies evolve. For Google’s part, the way we tend to think about these things is: What are the unintended consequences that come from having done it in a way that wasn’t comprehensive enough in its thought process?”

Challenged on the problems publishers have with Facebook’s inconsistent algorithms, White characterised it as a feature rather than a bug.

“The company’s DNA is to move very fast,” White said. “We are in a very competitive environment. It may not feel like it to you guys, but we see competition on all sides. As a result, the product teams, the engineering teams, the partnership teams move very, very quickly to launch new product. And one of the ways that we do product development that makes it very difficult for our partners and, quite frankly, thrashes a lot of our partners, is that we launch a lot of minimum viable products — that’s what we call it. We put them out there and then we start learning and testing and iterating.

Jason White emphasised that Facebook launches a lot of minimum viable products, and publishers need to decide which work for their businesses.
Jason White emphasised that Facebook launches a lot of minimum viable products, and publishers need to decide which work for their businesses.

“And one of positive changes that we’ve seen over the past few years is that more publishers are actually willing to say: You know what? I don’t think we want to be a part of that test. I think that’s good,” White said. “It shows a maturation of the relationship. A few years ago, everyone wanted to be a part of everything. If you’re not ready to lean in there with your product teams and your editorial teams, it is better to wait until that product matures a little bit.”

Asked directly if either of their companies consider themselves to be publishers and so subject to the same responsibilities as traditional media, both executives flatly said no.

“I’ve worked for media companies and news organisations,” Facebook’s White said, “and the kinds of questions that you ask when you’re sitting in that chair are so different than when you work for a technology company that is, at its core, trying to build platforms to connect people with the content that they care about and create an adequate monetisation exchange around it.”

“We don’t produce original content in a traditional sense,” Google’s Washing said. “We don’t employ journalists. We don’t have a newsroom, nor do we ever intend to have one. We view ourselves very concretely as a distribution platform for content to be distributed to the types of users that want exactly what they want when they want it. But no, we don’t see ourselves as a publisher.”

Ultimately, though, Thursday’s inconclusive exchange came down to a question of digital advertising revenue and whether the platforms see any future in which they are not taking as large a share of the money as they do today.

That was the point at which the publishers got their strongest pushback, particularly from White at Facebook: “As best we can estimate, we represent roughly 20%, give or take, of the digital advertising market — significant, but not necessarily dominant. I think when publishers ask this question, what they’re really looking for is: How can we get pricing power back? Right? That’s what you want. You want to be able to have that direct relationship with an advertiser and charge them the same kind of rates you were getting in the analogue world.

“Unfortunately, we are all bound by the same gravity of the Internet, which is just that CPMs are low. CPMs are low because that’s what advertisers are willing to pay for that particular impression to reach that particular person wherever they are, whether they’re on The New York Times Web site, they’re finding it on Google search, or they’re going through a Facebook News Feed. That’s just a natural pressure of the Internet. We’ve seen digital ad rates going down slowly over time. And that’s difficult for everyone in this room. But I feel like that is more of the fundamental thing [media companies want from the platforms] than that there’s some kind of re-balancing of the growth.

“If we were to just pull out of that market, CPMs are not just going to naturally fly back up to what everyone needs to support the kind of original content creation that we’ve been talking about. That’s why I think the user-pay, consumer-revenue models are so, so, so important.

Because in everything I’ve looked at, it’s just about the only way we’re going to be able to support quality journalism and quality content creation — in particular at the local and regional level, where you’re just never going to have the scale to make a real business, given where that industry’s at.”