Journalism faces an apparent contradiction that afflicts it all the way to its innermost core. On the one hand, we are traversing a golden age for content creation, where the tools, methods, and networks are easily available and relatively cheap, starting with the massive proliferation and penetration of smartphones. It’s an incredible moment to be a communicator, given the ease of access to massive audiences, constantly connected with their smartphones to different platforms making distribution extremely efficient. Yet, those same platforms and the digital ecosystem as a whole have yet to construct a business model that will make the media industry economically sustainable in the short-to-medium run, in great part do to the outsized market power of the largest tech corporations like Google and Meta – Facebook’s latest rebranding in order to leave behind a series of bruising accusations stemming from whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaking of documents showing the company run by Mark Zuckerberg was aware of strong collateral damage caused 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 organisations they are a part of, and the information ecosystem as a whole. It also raises the bar for governments and regulators who, smelling the blood, know that prosecuting Silicon Valley giants that also include other major players such as Amazon, Apple, and MercadoLibre is politically palatable these days. Yet, an overshoot of regulation 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 kids from the Conurbano can become global stars in a matter of months, as trap star L-Gante and producer Bizarrap can attest to (their hit “BZRP Music Sessions Vol. 38” having racked up 230 million views on YouTube). Devices like smartphones and computers have become relatively cheap allowing almost everyone to be connected to the vastest network of information humanity has ever seen, the Internet. Smartphone penetration in Argentina broke above 70 percent in 2019 and will only continue to grow. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter allow users to broadcast live, for free, while granting access to billions of global users. And the collaborative nature of the Internet incentivises the construction of highly motivated communities, such as cryptocurrency enthusiasts and the NFT crowd. Furthermore, new investigative techniques such as open-source intelligence or the use of data mining techniques to comb millions of documents for information give journalists unprecedented investigative capacities.
Yet, newsroom populations are declining across the globe. In the United States, where data is readily available, newsroom employment has fallen 26 percent since 2008 if one includes newspapers, radio, TV, digital-native, and other operations. The rate surges to 46 percent if looking at newspaper publishers, the largest segment, according to the Pew Research Center. And some 1,800 local newspapers have shut down since 2004, more than 100 during the pandemic, creating so-called “news deserts” rendering their communities informationally orphans. This phenomenon is currently occurring in Argentina as well.
One of the main reasons behind these troubling facts is the lack of a sustainable business model for the written and multimedia formats coming out of newspaper and digital-native newsrooms where longer, more developed pieces have a home. As print readership declines and users’ habits lead them to digital consumption, particularly on mobile devices, publishers have scrambled to generate “traffic,” generally measured by metrics such as monthly unique visitors and pageviews. The pursuit of these metrics constitutes the underlying motivation behind most publishers’ digital strategies and investments over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the most effective way to generate large amounts of traffic in that time has been to rely on Google and Facebook, the gatekeepers of the digital information ecosystem.
Indeed, if one looks at the evolution of web traffic in the news and information category in Argentina, as measured by Comscore, several smaller outlets have had outsized growth in 2021, seeming to suggest a positive outlook. Yet, almost the entirety of this traffic comes from mobile users and has been generated by a specific strategy that focuses on breaking news, service articles, and entertainment, coupled with technical know-how that is increasingly commoditised. While this, in of itself, isn’t a bad thing, as newsrooms evolve to become 24-hour operations, the crooked incentives behind the pursuit of traffic and the velocity with which a publisher can make its way to the top of the pack thanks to an algorithmic boost has put 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 toward a digital strategy that prioritises quantity and speed, while leading to a disinvestment in certain formats and genres we subjectively consider important, including political and international coverage, investigations and the like. Furthermore, both Google and Facebook modify their algorithms with near-absolute obscurity, leading to sudden jumps and drops in the traffic of publishers for reasons that many times their own employees cannot explain. Ultimately, technical knowledge in order to position content as high as possible in feeds and search results, both from an editorial and a technical perspective (sometimes referred to as search-engine optimisation or SEO) has become a more important skill than rigour, criterion, and access to sources.
Several publishers including Editorial Perfil are in the process of developing a subscription model, which could align the interests of the newsroom, the audience, and the business model. While a successful subscription model for a large news organisation requires having a lot of traffic, at the end of the day its focus is on “quality” metrics including longer session durations and deeper scroll depth on pages. This would suggest that longer pieces with deeper analysis are valued more highly than the commoditised breaking news content, and should convert more subscribers. Yet, subscription models aren’t for all publishers as they are highly complex to implement and costly to sustain, particularly as churn begins to become an issue. While The New York Times has been highly successful at a global level, it isn’t clear how much “room” there is in the market for another digital subscription when users are generally already paying for the likes of Netflix, Spotify, and a couple of papers.
Journalism is still in the middle of its transformation into a new discipline, and media companies continue to face a critical situation, particularly in Argentina where economic crisis is the norm. Major tech players like Google and Facebook have felt the pressure from global regulators and have begun to pay publishers for content, something they vehemently denied they would ever do only a few years ago. Reducing these players’ monopoly power and forcing them to fairly reward key members of the digital ecosystem is essential if we aspire to keep a healthy and plural journalistic production.