New media at a (Cairn)crossroads following independent review

By Ben Stetson

Friday 15th February

Dame Frances Cairncross this week published an independent report into the challenges facing high-quality journalism in the UK. Ben Stetson dissects what it means for new media, and how tech giants can work with traditional outlets to rebalance the media landscape.

For the past year the bellows of policymakers and regulators around the world railing against the overbearing influence of ‘big technology’ or ‘social media’ have become all too familiar.

Days rarely pass without elected representatives demanding these companies take more responsibility for the content on their platforms, while the debate rumbles on about their role as an editorial force.

Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, was right to pronounce that the era of self-regulation is over for large technology providers. Social media giants have tended to focus on ad revenues; drawing criticism for wilfully ignoring the impact they are having on the media landscape. However, this is starting to change, and if policymakers and platforms themselves are going to genuinely grapple with a regulatory model they will have to examine how consumers actually use Twitter and Facebook to digest news.

High profile cases of misinformation being disseminated by prominent media and political figures – such as Daniel Kawczynski’s recent tweets about the Marshall Plan – increase demand for regulation but this inevitably subsides after respective parties reach an impasse. Social media giants often share a different view from policymakers about how users consume and digest information on the platforms, as reflected in Zuckerburg’s insistence last year that Facebook is a technology company, not media.

The facts do not reflect Zuckerburg’s sentiment, however. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2018 outlined that 74% of UK adults read news online (including social media); while two-thirds said they use TV and only 39% printed newspapers. This generational shift represents not a lack of demand for high-quality journalism but an evolution in how news is consumed.

This week, Dame Frances Cairncross’ published the latest independent review into the future of the UK news industry. She said such sites should help users identify fake news and “nudge people towards reading news of high quality”. Some companies are trying to get ahead of the curve: YouTube recently vowing to recommend fewer conspiracy theory videos is a smart example of what Cairncross’ theory looks like in practice.

Cairncross’ has taken a more measured approach in comparison to some of the outlandish demands of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic. By acknowledging the dangers of punitive laws that could threaten the provision of the services she recognises the challenge. She hopes her report will help “tackle the uneven balance of power” between news publishers and online platforms.

By dissecting and understanding changing patterns of modern media consumption, the report acknowledges that convenience is king and that the preservation of high-quality news requires funding.

In order to devise a sensible regulatory model, policymakers must marry an age-old practice of journalism and a new generation of content providers. Competition rules amongst publishers have to be examined just as advertising models for technology companies require reviewing.

The Government are due to publish a forthcoming White Paper on regulating the internet, with a consultation to inevitably follow. Principally, tech firms must acknowledge they are more than just platforms and ensure they’re being responsible in how they curate and recommend content, while still letting demand dictate. Getting ahead of the issue is the most effective way for companies to protect themselves from what could be a series of poorly thought through policies with a range of unintended consequences for consumers. It’s time social corporations got responsible, for everyone’s sake.


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