Emily Bell On Journalism in the Age of Social Media

Season 2 Episode 7
Emily Bell on Journalism in the Age of Social Media

S2E7 / July 16, 2020

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Journalism has had a storied history with the internet. Early on, the internet was a niche market, something for traditional publishers to experiment with as another medium for sharing news. As it gained popularity as a news source, newsrooms began to change as well, adapting their business models to the digital age. Newspapers had historically generated revenue through a mix of subscriptions, advertising and classifieds. But internet platforms Craigslist and Kijiji soon took over classified. Google Ads presented advertisers with more refined marketing tools than the newspapers could offer. And Facebook and Twitter made it possible for readers to consume news for free without visiting newspaper’s website.

In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak to Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Newsrooms are left with few options to make money now. Unless you are a large outlet with a sizable online subscriber base like The New York Times, your capacity for local reporting will be hampered by the economic need to focus on stories that have the broadest reach. Many media conglomerates have cut back their local reporting, creating news deserts across large regions. Not having local reporters on the case is having negative impacts on democracy, too. As Bell explains, “Where there is no local press…local officials tend to stay in office for longer. They tend to pay themselves more.” Smaller local news outlets that can build a relationship with their readers can see success if their readers are able to pay the subscription fees. But it is often poorer communities, where people can't afford local news subscriptions, that most need the services of good local journalism. Bell sees an opportunity to rethink the way news is funded: first, by looking to communities to decide what level of reporting they require, and second, by resourcing it accordingly.


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.


David Skok: Hello, I'm David Skok, the Editor-in-Chief of The Logic.

Taylor Owen: And I'm Taylor Owen, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and a Professor of Public Policy at McGill.

David Skok: And this is Big Tech, a podcast that explores a world reliant on tech, those creating it, and those trying to govern it.

A couple of months ago, VICE media laid off more than 150 people. In the middle of the pandemic, this was hardly unusual, but what was unusual is that their CEO, Nancy Dubuc didn't just blame the coronavirus for their money troubles. She also blamed big tech.

Taylor Owen: Over the past 20 years, the relationship between journalism and online platforms has been complicated. What started out as a promising partnership has been riddled with false promises, controversies and heartbreaks as platforms absorbed the distribution revenue models, and even some of the editorial functions of journalism organizations. Few people know this as well as Emily Bell. Emily helped launch the website for The Guardian in the early 2000s, and at the time she was optimistic about how our industry might navigate the shift to digital journalism.

David Skok: But over the last decade, the advertising model that supported journalism for more than a century was blown up partly by big tech, and Emily isn't quite so optimistic anymore. She's now the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. And she spent a lot of time thinking about where things went wrong and how we might be able to rebuild the journalism industry.

Taylor Owen: She was also my boss and collaborator when I worked at the Tow Center, and we're currently writing a book together. I think listening to this, you'll get the sense that there's a lot to be worried about when it comes to the state of journalism right now. But there's also a thread of optimism in there too. We're sort of at a critical moment right now, and we have a chance to figure out and define what the role of journalism in society should be and ultimately who might pay for it. Here's Emily Bell.

David Skok: Emily Bell. Welcome to Big Tech.

Emily Bell: Thank you very much indeed. It's great to be here.

David Skok: It's great to have you. I think most people probably have a sense that journalism is not doing particularly well now, or at least traditional legacy journalism, but they may not know how or why we got here. So I'm hoping you can start by just giving us a lay of the land and maybe painting a picture of the state of journalism, both as a business and as a trustworthy institution.

Emily Bell: Okay. So easy questions first. So there was this man called Gutenberg in Germany. So the story of technology in journalism, as you say David, is let's try and take what went wrong for journalism over the last 20 years. So the internet arrives in the late '90s, and everybody thought it was going to be great for journalism because they thought that you could just publish more things cheaply without printing a newspaper and just have a lot more readers looking at them. And therefore the money you made out of it from advertising would go up as well. So that was the kind of first version of how journalistic organizations thought about the web. Which was sort of true from about 1996 to about 2003, when a kind of a new realization started to dawn, which was that there were all of these new players emerging, notably Google at the time, that could collect everything that news organizations were putting on their websites together and publish them in a completely separate way, which didn't really kind of give audiences the same relationship with publishers and audiences loved it. So Google news launches in 2002 and the figures go through the roof. At this time, and I was running The Guardian's online businesses, that we still thought that the way to save journalism was to really convert news organizations into digital news organizations. So let's be more like all of those other publishers on the open web. Let's try and make The Guardian more like a social platform. Let's have comments on it. Let's embed video. Let's do all of those things and say, "This is what audiences want on the web." And to some extent we were right, kind of numbers for news consumption on the web carried on going up really from 2000 to 2010, pretty steadily. However, what went wrong was the business model because we had a model whereby we still put ads on pages. So you open up your web browser and there's an annoying popup and a banner ad and then there's a news article. And this worked pretty well till about 2005, 2006. Then we have in 2007, you have companies like Twitter and Facebook beginning to make an impact with new types of distribution for material, lots of creation now happening. So anybody could post anything. And what we know really is that the advertising that had supported journalism really for sort of getting on for 200 years, 150 years, started to not work so well as just an ad on a page. And the targeting data, in other words, the things that like Google and Facebook knew about you, became a much more efficient way to reach audiences. And that's, if you'd like, when the wheels really came off. If you were a smaller publisher and particularly if you're a local publisher, your local businesses who would have paid you $30 for an ad, were paying Google $4 for an ad and finding that they were getting a better result from it. So really kind of from 2010, even though we have actually as lots of journalistic organizations had done a pretty good job of figuring out what digital audiences want. We have new things like Buzzfeed and Vox and all of those kinds of new sites for young, digitally savvy people arriving. It sort of didn't matter because the advertising model just didn't work unless you were big enough. The big technology platforms, which aren't really advertising companies, have completely remade the economics for advertising. And if you are a publisher who once relied on advertising, and that's a very significant number of news organizations, then you are really going to have to find another way of making money. In fact, we're now looking at kind of there being no business models or no viable commercial business models.

Taylor Owen: So I want to follow on that a bit because it gets to sort of the nature of the problem we're at now, which is if we are in a universe where a few global brands have made a transition to a mixed revenue model of scale of advertising combined with subscriptions, and some smaller organizations can go fully on a subscription model, if everything else goes away, which is close to where we are, frankly, right? How bad is that? So what does that look like first? I mean, when everything else goes away. What are we losing? And what are the costs of that? How bad is that situation, if that's where we're either at or close to getting to?

Emily Bell: So, if everything goes away, it essentially means that we just see an acceleration of what we've already seen, which is like a halving of the number of reporters in newsrooms in the last 15 years. We've seen a sort of, just certain places that don't have newspapers or news gathering anymore. And I think people say, "Well, newspapers are going away because it's an old fashioned medium," and that's true, but what they tend to overlook or not know is that when you listen to your local radio station or you get cable news, a lot of the original reporting was done in those old fashioned newspaper newsrooms. So in a way that kind of the first thing you lose is on the ground reporting resources, really important to understand that that feeds everything. I think the second thing that happens is that we go back to the 19th century, which is before advertising. So there is a theory my friend, Clay Shirky, has kind of advanced this a couple of times, which I think is right, which is that there was an anomaly in the 20th century where advertising support is an independent press. Before that, the press was party political. So one of the things that might happen, and this is a bit kind of looking into the crystal ball of the future, if you don't care about original reporting and you don't care about kind of fact checking and things like that, it's actually very cheap to automate local coverage. You can do it very easily. And we're seeing a rise in companies, political lobbyists, packs, which are the political advertising committees in the States, using news media, things that look like local news to get their message across and that's across the political spectrum. So it could be that when we lose, we're not just losing local reporting resources, but the vacuum that's created by is filled by all kinds of interests, where it's very hard for the reader to actually understand why they're seeing these messages or how there's not the same kinds of accountability or even legibility that you would have if your local newspaper had a big building in the middle of town, and everybody knew who owns it. It's one thing, if it's possible for sprawling network of a thousand sites put together by a conservative network that pumps out hundreds of thousands of different stories about things like crime figures and voter fraud, you gain... So you lose resources, but you don't just lose resources. You also open, I think, the field for much more sort of challenging elements when it comes to keeping it kind of holding an honest conversation. The other thing that happens, and there's plenty of research to back this up, is that your local government becomes more corrupt. Where there is no local press, local officials tend to stay in office for longer, they tend to pay themselves more. We've seen this kind of over and again, where there's a recession and that kind of reporting. There's a rise in corruption.

David Skok: If I were to push back in two areas, the one would be that some of the challenges that local newspapers have faced, I'm not convinced yet that these are revenue challenges, but more so that these are cost structure challenges. That if you said to me today, David, if you wanted to in the city of Toronto, start a newsroom from scratch, a digital newsroom, and I would give you 125 reporters, which is effectively what the Toronto Star for example has, my answer to you would be Emily, thank you very much. That's too many. I don't need that many. We could probably do some remarkable reporting with 25 or 50 reporters at most. And so in some ways I think there's a disconnect between the operational structures that were there, and that doesn't even include the printing and distribution costs and everything else that went into that. So that's the one. But then the other thing, and it's more of an existential thing that's been a question in my mind for a few months now, is there seems to be a baseline definition of what we mean by local news, and what I found in starting The Logic, this publication in Canada, we cover local issues on particular niches, right? So we cover technology and we are reporting, early on led the way on how Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs project in downtown Toronto was being covered. We went to city hall, we looked at the lobbying records and it was our reporting that ultimately led our competitors, the dailies, to pick up our reporting. And so with that anecdote behind me, I sometimes think that the definition of what we mean by local news needs to be broadened and that it's not necessarily a geographic thing.

Emily Bell: No, I would actually agree with you. So I disagree with you on the first push back, and I would agree with you on the second push back, which is, I think that we just have to have things that look structurally different. We can all romanticize local papers and what they did, but we all know what the problems were. Huge amounts of cost attached to things that didn't really need doing by human beings, lots of wasted kind of resources, often a kind of disconnect between the sort of newsrooms and the communities they cover. So this is why I'm very careful to say reporting rather than newsrooms or newspapers, because I think those are two different things. And we did, at the Tow Center, we recently did an audit of what our local news outlets in New York City. And the first thing was exactly this point, that they are not, they don't look like local newspapers. And the second thing was that there can be tons and tons of coverage, but then there can be... So it's not a geographic desert, but it can be a sort of a reporting desert. So for instance, the courts in New York City now are largely unreported. In fact, there is a non-profit... This is an interesting kind of question about whether you actually need these organizations. There is an organization called CourtWatch NYC, which literally sends people to sit in courts to witness what is happening, because there are no longer reporters there. And it's a really important function in the criminal justice system. If there is nobody in court to see who were the judges, who are the police officers, what's the dynamic. If you're just getting a report of the cases, you're really not doing a civic service to the people who are on that very important first rung of the ladder. Do you need news reporters to do that? Or is it done as well by a focused non-profit that is there to witness those things? I mean, I think it's kind of crazy that we don't have that on the public records. And the first thing that I disagreed with you about, I can't quite remember...

David Skok: The cost structure, that there is revenue.

Emily Bell: The more I look at this, the more I realize it's not just about what are you getting out there on a daily basis that's being read by your audience and what money is coming through the door? It's about a civic function of being able to convene people. It's about building a kind of memory and public record and having a stable environment for that. And journalism is a team sport, five people is a small team. So that sort of resilience that you need to meet big corporate and big government challenges, I believe does not exist in small teams in the same way it does in bigger teams. Now, we might be able to supplement those small teams with networks that help with investigative reporting challenges or legal challenges or whatever, when we're refiguring this model, I think that's perfectly possible. But I don't, I wouldn't agree that you can do tons and tons with really tiny teams. So I think you can do a lot over a short period of time, but I don't think you can build a resilient, kind of an adequate facility.

Taylor Owen: If only there was a sector of society that had massive amounts of money made largely off the transition of digital advertising away from journalism and towards their business model, which was probably more effective at delivering that advertising. So even if we acknowledge that that wasn't their intention to undermine the journalism model, they have benefited tremendously from it. And they are now getting into the game of subsidizing journalism in a big way. And you have outlined and documented projects around the world where this is happening, and it's happening in Canada at scale and in a growing way, where big tech is subsidizing journalism and in many ways. What's wrong with that?

Emily Bell: Yes. Yeah, you asked for it, now you've got it, now you don't like it. That's a very journalistic cycle.

Taylor Owen: Absolutely.

Emily Bell: So, let's talk about Facebook and Google here, because Google and Facebook are the ones that have taken the advertising revenue, particularly on mobile. And they have both got journalism, as you say Taylor, journalism projects to help support journalism. What I think is wrong with it is this, which is none of this is, all of this is actually kind of initiatives from within the companies themselves. The companies themselves are not what I would call intrinsically journalistic. And people sort of challenge me on that and said, "Well, what do you mean by that?" And I'll say, Well, they don't, journalism isn't what they do. Reporting is not what they do and defending freedom of the press is not what they do as a core function. It's an ancillary function to advertising businesses and tech and software businesses. And often they have very important business relationships that are in direct conflict with supporting journalism. So the idea that you can sign NDAs with government contractors and also be the backbone of the free press. I mean, there's a fundamental kind of conflict in that anyway. With the sort of lack of an alternative, these companies are now deciding how we reshape journalism pretty much unilaterally and pretty much without any oversight. And is that really what we want to happen to local press? And then just a really practical point, which is they have no, there's no kind of guarantee that they're going to continue to give money to journalism. They might give a lot more of it. They may give a lot less of it, but nobody knows. It's all left to whim. So there's no real kind of long-term resilience or planning possible. So say one of the things I'm worried about is that all of this has happened in very small initiatives, but I feel as though these very small initiatives are actually adding up to a really big change where you actually have sort of complete dependency of particularly smaller publishers on these relationships, both technical and financial, with a group of companies that are often actually in their backyard. I mean, David was mentioning Sidewalk Labs. Google is involved in Sidewalk Labs. If Google is bankrolling the local press, what does that say about accountability? It's a very difficult area, I think. And I think to some extent the tech companies should have that taken out of their hands, have those decisions taken out of their hands.

David Skok: So, I'm going to try to take another tack here, which is Emily, I remember being in Austin with you. We had a coffee after you had just attended an F8 developer conference. I think it was an F8 developer conference for Facebook where Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed CEO, was on stage talking about his new video partnership with Facebook. And I think to paraphrase you and forgive me for putting words in your mouth, you said it looked like he was being held hostage at that presser. And that's just, that's the new players, but then at the very same time that was happening, we in some of the larger legacy newsrooms were having conversations with Google about first click free on search. And there was no real coordinated effort at the time on the publisher side to stand firm. And I share that to kind of, I guess, push back and say, we have to take, we being those of us who were involved in managing large publishing organizations, we kind of let it happen on our watch. And so why is that Google and Facebook's fault?

Emily Bell: Well, it's not their fault. This not about apportioning blame. It's just about saying, "Yes, it happened on our watch." The question is not who's fault was it and are there two sides to this? The question is what kind of society do we want? That's a huge question, but think about India. And this is not a great example because obviously what's happened in India now is that they have an autocratic government and press regions are under attack. But there was a moment when Facebook was trying to get a scheme called Free Basics launched in India. And the campaign against Free Basics said this, which was really compelling and actually the right thing. And they won, though it didn't ultimately sort of perhaps land the Indian press in the right place. They said, "If we are going to have a billion people or a 100 million people, so if we're going to have a 100 million people coming online for the first time in the next year, are we really going to give that decision making about how that should happen to an American company like Facebook?" And we've seen actually in other parts of the world where, notably obviously Myanmar, where literally the sort of Free Basics program ended with genocide. It was just like sort of incomplete. Now, I think that sort of allowing Facebook and Google the amount of invidious control and influence that they have across all sections of the press at the moment is nobody's fault. We let them as publishers, they came with the money, they have some good people who are interested in fixing this problem, but it's not how we should be thinking about what makes for a healthy society and a free press. If that's what we want. If we want everything to be run by big technology companies, then actually this is a pretty good way of creating an exoskeleton for a completely different type of press, which actually doesn't have independence from, they has no more independence from large scale gatekeepers than we have in the last wave. So it could be that actually our hand ringing is the wrong thing, and we're going to end up with something which is very like corporate media from the 1950s to the 19, 2000s, but just on a larger scale with bigger companies with more control.

Taylor Owen: I feel like these conversations always end up with a discussion of structure and design of technological systems and financial incentives. And that's where we always end up, but it's very much the case here. And what we're talking about is imposing a model of speech that wants a norm and a set of policies for everybody on the planet. And we know that doesn't work. We saw what happened in Myanmar. We saw what happened in the Philippines. We saw what happened in Brazil just recently. We know what happens when American free speech norms combined with the financial incentives of platforms overlay on top of a media ecosystem of a country. It works in some places, but many places, it has serious downside risks and it-

Emily Bell: Including arguably America. I mean, I think that's the interesting thing that's happening now.

Taylor Owen: That's where I was going to go with this. I mean, I wonder if that model just doesn't work anywhere, if this sort of free speech absolutism combined with the financial incentives of an engagement based platform system just don't mix. And if so, how do we break out of that?

Emily Bell: Well, I think it's like we have to think about speech as money, likes and shares on Facebook are our currency, they are what give the company value because they can track people's behaviour. It spreads content. It gives them kind of targeting opportunities. And these are designed features, these are not accidents. And as you say, Taylor, actually sort of the thing has been to say from the American perspective, it's been a really, I think, interesting being a European who's been working here for the last 10 years, because the version of the First Amendment, which is constantly boosted, which is the First Amendment is a very valuable kind of tenant of American society. But it's not one that suits everybody because that's actually not protecting their freedoms at all. These are people who've been marginalized and silenced for a long time. And now there is a very significant volume of them who are pushing back and saying we don't actually like the way that this has been implemented at all. It's causing discrimination, it's causing hatred, it's causing division and you have got to fix it. So the focus has been on real kind of egregious human rights transgressions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the Philippines and other places, but the same problems exist in the States. And now they're becoming manifested because the accountability of big tech, it's been allowed to plow this furrow pretty much unchecked because it's been highly financially successful.

Taylor Owen: Journalism isn't all of this conversation, it's a part of it. But one of the things you've been arguing for, and I think Ethan Zuckerman too very effectively, is a reframing of how we view media and journalism in our public sphere and thinking of it as a civic good, that isn't dictated solely by the market, but is something we decide as a society we value, and we then resource and figure out how to resource in a way that doesn't undermine its function. Can you talk a little bit, so we can sort of close here, on what that might look like? What does it mean if we turn this on its head and think about media as a civic good, and then fund it and support it accordingly?

Emily Bell: So, that leads us to an immediately controversial and difficult place, cause it's like saying is journalism like parks, which are nice to have kind of places, or is it like the police, which is sort of controversial, difficult, often at odds with the community that it serves? And actually, journalism has this kind of watchdog function. I've argued that in some ways it's more like the police than it is like the parks in that not everybody necessarily welcomes it in quite the same way. And also that there is a vast difference between the damage done by bad journalism and the good done by good journalism. So, say what does it look like as a civic good? Cause I think that you have to start off by saying, do communities need or deserve human reporting and at what scale? So in other words, this question of like, do we want somebody in the courts every day? Do we want somebody who can go to school board meetings and write about those? What do we think the four or five things, which really matter for public accountability, how are they covered? And that might mean that these things are not necessarily the most read stories or the most popular, but is it important that we find a mechanism through new types of public or civic media funding? Maybe through local philanthropy. I mean, Americans always turn to philanthropy. Europeans, Canadians tend to turn to government. But at a local level that decides what these bodies actually look like and how they operate and how they're kept independent. So that's the other thing, which is how do you, is that a mixed model funding of proportion coming from local funding, proportion coming from the central fund, and then the proportion coming from the commercial market, whether it's advertising or sponsorship or events or whatever it is. And I think we're beginning to see... So this shouldn't all be kind of completely sort of doom and gloom. I think we are seeing models which are exploring that pretty effectively. So, we're seeing a lot more partnerships now between public media radio stations in the U.S. and local reporting outlets. We're seeing investigative networks like ProPublica go from being national to locally based. We're seeing... If you think about things that have actually been really successful in journalism in the last 10 years, one of those things is networks. So, the ICIJ, which is an international investigative reporting network, has broken some really big stories, and those are kind of pretty resilient things, but they need a different design approach, right? So I think it's a combination of having some central policy and funding initiatives that create networks of support through technology, law, training, et cetera, combined with a system of local decision making about what kinds of operations do we want to support here? Who in the community wants to run this? How does it fit together? How are these places represented? And it won't look uniform. I think we're all looking for a scale solution. And we have to allow for, as you said, really significant kind of regional and local variations, because these things are cultural. It's something that works in one place will not necessarily work in another.

David Skok: I should say I kind of stepped back for a few minutes here, cause listening to you both talk, I can do this all day. Knowing you both for as long as I have, it's a real treat. Also for our listeners who may not know, Taylor and Emily wrote a book together. And so there's a lot of-

Taylor Owen: We should be careful with the tense there, right?

Emily Bell: Oh, right. Yes. I was going to say, be careful. Yes, we are writing a book, we are in the process of finalizing.

Taylor Owen: I would love for it to be past tense, but it...

Emily Bell: Yes, it's coming to an Amazon list somewhere near you in 2027. So, watch out for it.

David Skok: Okay. Well then we'll have you, I will moderate the next time we have you on. Just the one last question, which is, because we've all known each other for so long, this conversation has evolved so much over the last 10 years. And it seemed like some people may have been howling into a tornado and not getting any traction for quite a while, and then all of a sudden it just took off. What's the one thing that, Emily, concerns you the most about the conversation and where it is today? And just to end on a happy note, what's the thing that you're most optimistic about?

Emily Bell: So, things that I'm most concerned about is political will, that I think that the ideas are there, I think the energy's there, I think we know what the problems looks like. I just think the political will and the organization to do something about it is still a little bit compromised by the lobbying efforts of the tech platforms. But what makes me hopeful is that we are at the bottom of the slippery slope, almost anything we do now will make things better. We are pretty close to the bottom of where we could get to just in terms of worrying about what we read and where it comes from and what we see, and who's behind it, not knowing about what the effects of those messages are. So I feel just incredibly hopeful about the energy and focus of journalists actually now thinking, we could actually kind of really sort of fix this. I see kind of activist groups having traction. I see regulators shifting their body language. I see a great deal of danger, but I also see, I think, the world waking up to what happens when journalism goes away. So I think that kind of what we are at a point where there's an awful lot to build on, but we just need to make sure that we build. And one of the things that we are going to need in this I think is, as I say, a lot of political will.

David Skok: Well, Emily, thank you again for taking the time, and Taylor and Emily, I hope you can finish the manuscript at some point soon. And I look forward to talking to you both again soon.

Emily Bell: Thanks David. Thanks Taylor.

Taylor Owen: Thanks so much.

Taylor Owen: Big Tech is presented by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and The Logic and produced by Antica Productions.

David Skok: Make sure you subscribe to Big Tech on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. We release new episodes on Thursdays every other week.


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Backstopping the Civic Function of Journalism

Following a discussion with Emily Bell, Taylor Owen considers the many changes in the journalism ecosystem over time and how civic and accountability journalism’s importance to democracy has never been clearer.

July 16, 2020
Taylor Owen