Like most newspapers, The Guardian has had its knickers in a twist over Google and Facebook for years, but it now appears to have settled on a coherent strategy, following the 2015 appointment of Katherine Viner as Editor in Chief, on how to present the disruptive impact of the tech titans as advertising spend has gradually shifted online. While her predecessor, Alan Rusbridger, reflected a more traditional liberal concern with intrusive surveillance by big business in cahoots with the state, most famously in the case of the Snowden revelations, Viner is very much a la mode in liberal circles in emphasising propriety and the inadequacy of the new platforms as gatekeepers. Recent examples include the claim that Google allowed Holocaust deniers to "game" searches and evidence that YouTube has been tacking adverts by respectable brands onto extremist videos. Much of this is overblown, but there is enough substance to the claims to prompt corporate apologies and promises to do better, even if Mark Zuckerberg assuring us that Facebook didn't swing the US Presidential election by facilitating the circulation of "fake news" was a tad self-serving. My question is: what does Viner & co hope to achieve by this?
The belief that Google and Facebook are unwilling to accept that they are publishers with a responsibility for content is as old as they are. In reality, they pretty much stopped claiming to be innocent intermediaries a few years ago as regulatory developments such as the EU's rulings on personal data and their own ventures into news aggregation blurred the lines. They've even found it convenient to occasionally claim publisher rights in respect of free-speech. The real divide isn't between technology and publishing but between business models based on automation and curation. As de facto monopolists, Google and Facebook are not interested in overt discrimination - everyone's money is as good as everyone else's - and they see curation as a costly overhead. In contrast, newspapers have always been class identifiers, both as political instruments and as cultural capital in their own right. For them, discrimination is essential, both in attracting a particular demographic to satisfy advertisers and in the performance of comment and review. One reason broadsheets invest more resources than tabloids in obituaries and letters to the editor is because they are emblematic acts of curation.
Faced with the challenge of the Internet, the initial strategy of many newspapers was to replicate their content online and seek to leverage the capabilities of the new medium, for example through breaking news updates, integrated video and moderated comments. The problem for the traditional press was that the low cost of entry for online publishing introduced by the Web, and then amplified by social media, resulted in an explosion of content. This wasn't simply a case of dumbing-down, as cat videos proved more popular than sober editorials, but of smartening-up as well, as many communities of interest found better quality content from specialist online providers. With advertising space no longer constrained by the medium, and with advertisers more promiscuous (i.e. trying everything, because they still have no idea what works), the inevitable result is falling rates for content providers and a larger slice of the revenue pie for the big Internet platforms. This has led some newspapers to conclude that mass advertising is now a lost cause for print.
The current strategy of many newspapers, particularly broadsheets, is to monetise the brand and its core (i.e. loyal but ageing) readership, either through the exclusivity of a paywall or the inclusivity of a membership scheme. Neither is likely to prove anything more than a palliative, but at least it makes sense to an industry predicated on discrimination. The ultimate logic of this approach would be to limit sales to members and make membership invitation-only - i.e. a controlled subscription model. As the price of technology drops, there may come a point when in return for a subscription you get a customised e-reader, or even a smartphone, so allowing publishers to dispense with print altogether while providing a premium channel for advertisers that bypasses Google and Facebook. This would create an exclusive demographic that could command higher advertising rates, though at the cost of capping revenue growth as those rates would probably move inversely to subscriber numbers (i.e. the more exclusive the subscriber base, the higher the rate, but the lower the volume). But the end of mass readership would mean a dilution in political influence, which is why most newspapers will be reluctant to pursue this logic.
What the Guardian Media Group seems to be angling for is not merely an admission by Google and Facebook that they are publishers and gatekeepers, but for the creation of a content provider class system and thus a return to discrimination. Its beef isn't that its membership ads are polluted by association with white supremacist videos but that John Harris vox pops don't command a premium for ad rates. It isn't practical for humans to screen every possible combination of content and advert in a dynamic system, and AI cannot overcome ambiguity and context, but certifying content providers up-front (not unlike Twitter's tick-mark) would provide advertisers with the choice of a safe versus a risky spend in terms of both association and reach. This would also reduce the latitude of third-party media-buyers, for whom publishers have little respect. The tech titans would obviously resist this as it would mean sharing a greater portion of advertising revenues with the privileged content providers, who would in turn lobby to limit certification, but there may be room for a compromise given that the platforms recognise the need for quality content to be publicly available. If the Web becomes too tabloid and low-rent, then high-margin advertisers may drift back to direct placements in niche publications, such as those dedicated e-readers.
One notable exception to the paywall/membership trend is The Washington Post, which has been absorbed into Amazon's wider services landscape since being bought by Jeff Bezos in 2013 (I note Amazon Fire tablets now have the WaPo app pre-installed). While some newspapers like The Guardian have trumpeted "digital first" strategies for the last 5 years, the experience of the Post suggests that this only works if software engineers become more important to the internal culture of the business than journalists, which isn't something that is likely to happen at a newspaper owned by the Scott Trust. In reality, technology has been whittling away at the importance of curation (i.e. editing) for some years. Given that curation is more science than art, being the consistent application of rules to inconsistent data, this really shouldn't come as a surprise, but the newspaper industry's infatuation with the philosopher-king editor is too entrenched to be challenged by a press insider. I think this ultimately explains the hysterical note in the Guardian Media Group's attitude towards the tech titans, and in particular its emphasis on human discrimination. If content is king, then editors are automatable.