The Great Dichotomy of Journalism and the Internet’s Twisted Incentives

Journalism is confronted with an apparent contradiction which afflicts it to the very depths of itself. On the one hand, we are going through a golden age for content creation, where tools, methods and networks are readily available and relatively inexpensive, starting with the massive proliferation and penetration of smartphones. It’s an amazing time to be a communicator, given the ease of access to a massive audience, constantly connected with their smartphones to different platforms, which makes the distribution extremely efficient. Yet these same platforms and the digital ecosystem as a whole have yet to build a business model that will make the media industry economically viable in the short to medium term, in large part thanks to the inordinate market power of the overwhelming majority. large technology companies. like google

and Meta – Facebook’s latest rebranding to leave behind a string of bruising accusations stemming from leaked documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen showing the company run by Mark Zuckerberg was aware of significant collateral damage by the Facebook family of products, including genocide and suicide.

This “great dichotomy” poses important questions for the present and future of journalists, the newsrooms they inhabit, the media organizations of which they are a part, and the information ecosystem as a whole. It also raises the bar for governments and regulators who, scenting for blood, know to sue the giants of Silicon Valley which also include other major players such as Amazon, Apple.

, and MercadoLibre

is politically acceptable these days. Yet exceeding regulations could cause more damage than it seeks to repair.

One of the defining aspects of the digital revolution is the rise of the influencer, showing how a couple of poor children from the Conurbano can become global stars in a matter of months, as trap star L-Gante and producer Bizarrap can attest (their hit “BZRP Music Sessions Vol. 38” having racked up 230 million views on YouTube). Devices such as smartphones and computers have become relatively inexpensive, allowing almost anyone to be connected to the largest network of information humanity has ever seen, the Internet. Smartphone penetration in Argentina exceeded 70% in 2019 and will only continue to grow. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow users to live stream, for free, while providing access to billions of users around the world. And the collaborative nature of the internet encourages the building of highly motivated communities, such as cryptocurrency enthusiasts and the NFT crowd. In addition, new investigative techniques such as open source intelligence or the use of data mining techniques to comb through millions of documents for information are giving journalists investigative capabilities. unprecedented.

Yet the newsroom population is shrinking across the world. In the United States, where data is readily available, newsroom employment has fallen 26% since 2008 when including newspapers, radio, television, digital native and other operations. The rate jumps to 46% if you look at newspaper publishers, the largest segment, according to the Pew Research Center. And some 1,800 local newspapers have closed since 2004, more than 100 during the pandemic, creating “information deserts” leaving their communities information orphans. This phenomenon is currently happening in Argentina as well.

One of the main reasons behind these disturbing facts is the lack of a sustainable business model for print and multimedia formats from native digital newspapers and newsrooms where longer and more developed articles have a place. As print readership declines and user habits drive them into digital consumption, especially on mobile devices, publishers have focused on driving “traffic,” typically measured by metrics such as monthly unique visitors and page views. The pursuit of these metrics has been the underlying motivation for most publishers’ digital strategies and investments over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the most effective way to generate large amounts of traffic during this time has been to rely on Google and Facebook, the gatekeepers of the digital information ecosystem.

Indeed, if we look at the evolution of web traffic in the news and information category in Argentina, as measured by Comscore

, several small outlets experienced disproportionate growth in 2021, seeming to suggest a positive outlook. Yet almost all of this traffic comes from mobile users and has been generated by a specific strategy focused on breaking news, service articles and entertainment, coupled with increasingly commoditized technical know-how. While that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, as newsrooms evolve into 24-hour operations, the twisted incentives behind chasing traffic and the speed with which a publisher can weave their way through. path to the top of the pack thanks to an algorithmic boost has placed this type of production at the center of the strategy, to the detriment of in-depth and investigative content.

Thanks to their market power, Google and Facebook and other tech platforms have steered journalism towards a digital strategy that prioritizes quantity and speed, while leading to a disinvestment in certain formats and genres that we subjectively consider important, notably political and international coverage, surveys and Like. Additionally, Google and Facebook are tweaking their algorithms in near absolute darkness, causing publisher traffic to suddenly jump and drop for reasons their own employees often can’t explain. Ultimately, the technical knowledge to position content as high as possible in search feeds and results, both editorial and technical (sometimes referred to as search engine optimization or SEO) has become a skill. more important than rigor, criterion, and access to sources.

Several publishers including Editorial performance are developing a subscription model, which could align the interests of the newsroom, audience and business model. While a successful subscription model for a large news organization requires a lot of traffic, it ultimately focuses on “quality” metrics, including longer session durations and deeper scroll depth. deep on the pages. This would suggest that longer articles with deeper analysis are valued more than trivialized breaking news content, and should convert more subscribers. Yet subscription models are not suitable for all publishers as they are very complex to implement and expensive to maintain, especially as the churn rate begins to become an issue. While The New York Times

has been very successful globally, it is not known how much “room” there is in the market for another digital subscription when users are already generally paying for Netflix

, Spotify and some articles.

Journalism is still in the midst of its transformation into a new discipline, and media companies continue to face a critical situation, especially in Argentina where the economic crisis is the norm. Major tech players like Google and Facebook have felt the pressure from global regulators and have started paying publishers for content, which they vehemently denied ever doing just a few years ago. Reducing the monopoly power of these actors and forcing them to fairly reward key members of the digital ecosystem is essential if we aspire to keep journalistic production healthy and plural.

This room was originally published in the Buenos Aires hours, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper.

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