News media’s growing Facebook co-dependency challenges journalism’s limits on acquiring informational ethically

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 Continue reading “News media’s growing Facebook co-dependency challenges journalism’s limits on acquiring informational ethically”

A digital journalism revolution with strings attached

Bring more than a thousand journalists together, many of them young and most of them brimming with skill in handling today’s most dazzling information tools, and you’d expect feverish talk about producing the kind of reporting that moves nations. Apart from dropping names and looking for jobs, that’s what journalists do in their off-hours—they talk stories, they talk opportunities to do the kind of work that matters.

And that’s what I expected when I rejoined the Online News Association, the premier organization of digital journalists, and went to their recent annual conference in Boston.

Boston did have some of that, notably sessions on the Arab spring, on telling in-depth stories better, and on the largely overlooked history of racial and sexual diversity in the digital revolution—which was fomented, as it happens, by lots more minorities and women than the standard fable of white boys in the garage might suggest.

So the rising generation of journalists didn’t seem wholly indifferent to the needs of a world that the rest of us hope they’ll dedicate themselves to serving, if not saving. But the conference sessions that generated the most buzz, and which had people sitting in the aisles and clustered at the doorways, weren’t about rooting out corruption or feeding the hungry.

They were about entrepreneurial journalism, which isn’t some new catchphrase for street-smart, down and dirty reporting. It’s a term for turning news and comment into a perpetual hustle. They were about transforming yourself into a “brand,” a recognizable label that can be monetized, thanks to the online traffic successful brands draw via New Age social media. They were about “cooking up tasty apps,” which is tech-speak for clever new interactive feeds that slice the informational customer base in novel ways.

And throughout the conference was the hip, deft, never-heavy hand of the affable lords of the online world. On the panels, at the booths, on the podiums were representatives of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, even Microsoft, which sponsored the first-night reception. They were welcomed as authoritative guides to the sophisticated, market-savvy journalism of today. They were envoys from colossal corporate enterprises, but they were embraced as ambassadors of a revolution—not because they know anything about news, but because they tend the meadows where the customers browse. Continue reading “A digital journalism revolution with strings attached”