Frenemies forever: Future fights between media owners and platforms

With all the noise from Google and Facebook over projects to help fund journalism, from the Digital News Initiative to Facebook’s forays into funding local journalism, you might think that those giants are finally putting their weight behind an industry that they’ve been accused of undermining.

At least pretend you mean it…

Similarly, as publishers abandon scale in pursuit of subscription models, you can easily believe that news publishers and search and social giants are no longer in direct competition for ad money and that therefore the lopsided competition between the two is at an end.

Both of those statements are true, to an extent. Google and Facebook are

funding journalism, even if it’s not to the extent to which publishers might hope (and certainly short of the carriage fee that some publishers hope for). And the competition for ad money gas been so comprehensively won by the Duopoly that it doesn’t appear that publishers even have a horse left in the race.

But that doesn’t mean that the relationship between the two is an entente cordiale. Both Google and Facebook, and their attendant properties like WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube, are still undermining some aspects of the fourth estate, making it harder for news publishers to hold power to account. As the dust settles on the battlefields of scale and ad money, it’s worth taking a look at the upcoming issues that might be flashpoints for more trouble between news publishers and the Duopoly.

The upending of user data

Accurate and impactful user data has been table stakes for anyone looking to make money digitally for some time now. As anyone with Ghostery installed can attest, everybody and their dog is hungry to track and measure user behaviour, and the invention of Facebook Pixel and similar tracking tools have allowed companies to do some genuinely scary things with user data.

With GDPR coming in and upending everything about how companies gather user data, in addition to growing concern over how user data was devolved and managed at Facebook, there is significant uncertainty around the future of first and third-party data sharing.

Media analyst Thomas Baekdal has an excellent post about the implications of user data for publishers here, in which he notes that Facebook and Google aren’t trying to fight GDPR but are instead simply ending many of their practices that have created the digital ecosystem to which publishers are accustomed, particularly when it comes to monetisation of first-time users. In particular, he points out that Google Adsense will no longer be able to use any personal details when tracking people across the web, a practice upon which publishers have grown accustomed.

Controlling the history of the internet

As I’ve written about here before, the internet is extremely ephemeral. Publishers can and will alter or delete entire articles, breaking the chain of links and recommendations online, and short of screencapping them there is very little that can be done about it. When third parties come in from outside and buy a site’s archive outright with the explicit purpose of deleting them, it’s even worse.

Additionally, the closure of platforms like Vine effectively prune a significant portion of the history of the internet, even with endeavours like the Vine Archive.  Writing for BuzzFeed, contributor Evan Hill notes:

“It’s the paradox of the internet age: Smartphones and social media have created an archive of publicly available information unlike any in human history — an ocean of eyewitness testimony. But while we create almost everything on the internet, we control almost none of it.”

So when Google or Facebook take it upon themselves to shutter some of their sites and delete the content that was hosted on them, they remove a strut from the foundation on which digital journalism is based. It’s not a situation that’s reached a critical juncture yet, but it’s coming, and there’ll be some more Gawker-like casualties before anything is settled.

The (continued) disintermediation of the internet

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the majority of publishers’ problems online are as a result of what analyst Emily Bell called “the great disintermediation of the web” back in 2015. Allowing third party platforms to become the gateway to users in exchange for (some) ad money turned out to be a huge mistake.

So even with the shows of good faith that Google has made to support publishers, there are still some stormclouds on the horizon. The most obvious is that Google’s efforts to aid publishers in growing subscriptions on its platform put the search giant front and centre in a user’s mind, strengthening its own data position at the expense of publishers (see point 1), and at the same time potentially contributing to the issue of brand erasure that plagued distributed publishing.

So while the big fights with Facebook and Google appear to be over, as publishers stretch their legs in other directions, it’s unlikely that publishers and the Duopoly will ever graduate from ‘frenemies’.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.