In the pre-dawn of the media age the main delivery system for news in much of the country consisted of sleepy boys on bikes, who pedaled from house to house before daybreak and stuck papers into mailboxes or threw them in the general vicinity of front doors.
I did that one summer for The Washington Post, a dreary job that was legal only thanks to the longstanding exemptions from child labor laws the newspaper industry had finagled. I got a dollar per subscriber per month. It would’ve been more, except the boy who had sublet the route to me insisted on handling the collections and, I later learned, pocketing the tips.
Now, under traditional newspaper economics, what subscribers paid for their papers covered only distribution costs. If the papers had been distributed cost-free to subscribers, publishers could have given them away and still made a profit. The real money was from advertising.
As it still is. Now, however, things have changed. I started thinking about how radically they’d changed after reading a pair of articles in The New York Times about Facebook. The stupendously successful social media network has morphed from a place where friendships are carried on to one of the primary ways that people find out about the world.
Citing a Pew Research Center study, The Times noted that 64 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook at least monthly, and roughly half of them get news there. That means that instead of clicking directly to the home pages of news outfits to find out what the editors there think readers should know about, the readers are taking the advice of Facebook friends: They then enter news sites through side doors to view what the editors there might very well consider sideshows.
In effect, the news organization’s Facebook presence has become its online newsrack.
I first became aware that this was Facebook’s plan back in 2011. That’s when the company’s brass—led by Sheryl Sandberg, who hadn’t yet become the cultural lodestone she is now, but was still Facebook’s chief operating officer and a speaker of immense appeal—carpet-bombed the American Society of News Editors annual gathering in San Diego with a single message: Facebook was the future of news.
Facebook was aiming to become the Macy’s window on the Internet for the news biz, offering fully modern functionality, visual pizzazz, and, above all, an unbeatable storefront on the same network that was fast becoming the choice online meet-up space for about a fifth of humanity.
That seems to be what now has happened. By throwing in with Facebook, news sites rent space in a virtual metropolis teeming with enthusiasts, who send traffic their way, and permeated by commercial vendors.
That’s the good part of the story. The rest of the story is that their readers’ online comings and goings, likes and dislikes, are noted, rummaged, inventoried, and harvested for data to be acted on and resold by Facebook and its collaborators.
It’s as if, back when newspapers were hand-delivered, they were given away for free. Then, in exchange, the paper boys got to record their observations about cars in the driveway and bikes in the yard, sift through the subscribers’ trash bins for commercially actionable intelligence, note any repairs on the house, check if the garden was tended and see which veggies were growing, and pass along information about family visitors, backyard swing sets, retail buying, empty milk bottles, etc.
None of that would be appealing, but a larger question looms: Isn’t Facebook-style informational pillage especially problematic when it’s undertaken on behalf of a news organization, whose entire existence depends on the practice of journalism?
Isn’t there something about journalism that clashes violently with the Facebook business model, built as it is on the behind-the-curtain accumulation and sale of data about personal interactions?
I think so. After all, the practice of journalism, when it’s done ethically, demands not only that information be presented fairly and accurately.
It also obligates practitioners to recognize restraints on just what information can be gathered and how. Reporters understand that by and large they should take care to identify themselves to their sources and tell them what the information they’re seeking will be used for. The source should consent to the interaction and, within reasonable limits, accept the uses to which their information will be put.
The relationship of journalists to information is subtle and complex: It is their quarry of course, but the hunt, if it’s conducted ethically, must be carried out in ways that respect the basic integrity of sources and their right to control their personal information.
In a word, both journalism and the business it’s embedded in are built on information acquisition. But the ethical constraints that journalists are supposed to respect are incompatible with the approach taken by the commercial model they increasingly rely on. Journalism now faces the dilemma of trying to hold on to that ethic even while depending on an information business that regards individual choice as an impediment, not a right.