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Bell: Big tech platforms need to own responsibility as publishers

by: Michele McLellan |

As social platforms shatter traditional news distribution models and further erode revenue for journalism, a leading digital journalism innovator says big tech companies such as Facebook and Google need to stop denying they are publishers and instead act like responsible ones.

“I would like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, Tim Cook and whichever man, or hopefully woman, is the next communications billionaire, to really consider themselves publishers, not simply ‘a technology company’. I would like them to take seriously the fragility of good journalism and what steps are needed to make sure it thrives,” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism said in a recent speech, entitled “The End of News as We Know It: How Facebook Swallowed Journalism.”

While the heads of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Apple think of themselves as “platforms,” Bell said, they increasingly function as publishers, deciding (or using algorithms to decide) which news and which voices are amplified and which are not, processes that are not at all transparent in the current environment.

“Even if you think of yourself as a technology company, you are making critical decisions about everything from the access to platforms, the shape of journalism or speech, the inclusion or banning of certain content, the right for certain operators to be considered publishers and others not. Leaders of technology companies need to recognize that fact,” she said.

They also need to own their power, she said.

“Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years, than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capabilityvirtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging and chat appsand massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many.”

Bell’s speech at the University of Cambridge contains a thorough explanation of the extreme and continuing disruption of the media landscape and I would encourage anyone who cares about journalism to read it in full.

I want to highlight her call to the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” as she calls Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Apple (plus Microsoft, she adds), to step up and take more responsibility for the future of journalism and transparency in news decisions.

Bell also called on civic institutions such as her own Tow Center to move beyond nostalgia for traditional news models, as embodied in the film “Spotlight,” and help figure out how to sustain good journalism in the age of social media.

“I am sentimental about the roar of the presses, the filthy offices and nicotine habits of the Spotlight era, but those trappings of journalism are probably best consigned to the dustbin of history,” Bell said.

“Many of us are however legitimately concerned that journalism, in all its forms, does not emerge from a period of technological change where it is weakened, where the protections and resources available to previous generations of journalists are not available to the next.”

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Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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