One of the reasons the Buenos Aires Herald was killed off by Cristobal López’s Grupo Indalo has nothing to do with their incompetence or lack of ournalistic experience. It has to do with Google and Facebook siphoning off a huge portion of the advertising pie, a state of affairs that puts professional journalism in serious peril.
The debate about the dominance of this so-called duopoly has finally become mainstream and it presages a coming paradigm shift where the Silicon Valley giants’ love affair with society looks set to come to an end. No-one can deny that ‘GAFA’ (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and a few other technology companies like Uber, AirBnB, Twitter and even Tinder have dramatically changed the way we live our day-to-day lives, becoming indispensable through constant innovation.
Yet these companies have become so dominant in their particular fields that they can have nefarious effects on the functioning of a capitalistic democracy. In Argentina, Google and Facebook take something like 70 to 80 percent of the total digital advertising spend, a trend that is replicated across the globe.
As readers move from analogue to digital platforms to consume news and media — a transition that has accelerated exponentially as smartphone adoption rises — traditional media companies that were too slow to adapt have gone under. This has led to journalistic jobs disappearing (in the United States, total newsroom jobs fell by 50 percent in recent years, from 55,000 in 2007 to 33,000 in 2015, according to figures from the America Society of News Editors) and it is becoming increasingly unsustainable to support serious, investigative journalism, as reporters become more focused on chasing clicks than scoops.
Even worse, the world’s largest search engine and the globe’s biggest social media network have become so good at disseminating information that they gave birth a turbo-charged version of the phenomenon of misinformation, “fake news,” which starred as a main protagonist in the last US presidential election that saw Donald Trump elected, and the whole Brexit ordeal in the United Kingdom. Creating false stories that become viral on Facebook and Twitter, with their authors able to monetise content on Google’s advertising platforms turned out to be such a lucrative occupation during the US election that teenagers in Romania and Macedonia were reportedly earning US$10,000 a month – almost 10-times the average wage in their hometowns – as the BBC, Buzzfeed and Inc have reported.
This week, Argentina’s news media industry gathered in Santa Fe for the industry group’s annual meeting. ADEPA (Asociacion de Entidades Periodisticas Argentinas) was celebrating its 55th General Assembly, and the event was partially financed by Google. But that didn’t stop a debate from breaking out during a panel hosted by Google, where I and others challenged what we see as monopolistic practices, questioning whether a digital platform’s use of journalistic content at no cost is fair.
Last year during ADEPA’s General Assembly, several other members sparred with me about this issue too. On Thursday, the notion was included in the resolution of the Committee for Press Freedom. It passed without a single objection. The freedom of the press is an essential human right and it is a necessity for a well-functioning democracy. As this new Times looks to take on the traditions of the Herald, it is paramount that we protect professional journalism not only from oppressive governments, but also from monopolistic practices that undermine fair competition.
“There’s blood in the water in Silicon Valley,” wrote Buzzfeed’s Editor-in- Chief Ben Smith this week in a widely circulated piece where he argues hat the tech industry has become too big, too rich, and too influential, putting it on a collision course with Washington DC. I am of the opinion that the era of the open Internet has been over for more than a decade — ever since Metallica forced music-sharing site Napster, founded by Sean Parker who was one of Facebook’s first presidents – to close down. Starting with the music industry, we have seen the rise of streaming services like Spotify and now Netflix.
Smartphone makers and operating system developers control the application ecosystem with an iron fist, and social media networks are using big data and other methods to keep users on their platforms for longer and longer. All of these players are related. None of them generate content (at least not as a significant source of revenue) and most are headquartered in Silicon Valley. Traditional media companies need to adapt and publishers need to figure out how to properly charge for digital content. That’s on us. But we mustn’t let technology companies get rich using our content while stoically listening to the band play on the deck of the Titanic.