13 November 2017
Speaking at the Society of Editors’ ‘Fighting for Real News’ conference in Cambridge, Lionel Barber added that while companies such as Facebook monopolised advertising revenues and provided a platform ‘to create a parallel universe of alternative facts’, news publishers continue to bear the risk related to accuracy and fairness.
He said: “What compounds the problem is the way audiences – and therefore ad revenues – have shifted from print to digital platforms. An estimated 90 per cent of all new digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook, according to Digital Content Next, the media trade group.
“Yet news publishers – especially in the UK where the libel laws are far more onerous – bear the considerable expense and risk relating to accuracy and fairness in the post-Leveson era.
“Mark Thompson – formerly boss of the BBC – correctly identified the lack of a level playing field. In professional news organisations, you can see who wrote the story. If you think it’s inaccurate or biased, you know who the editor is, and the publisher.
“With social media platforms and grand aggregators like Facebook and Google, “the ultimate provenance of content, and the algorithms that decide what we see and don’t see, lack this clarity.”
Addressing delegates at the University of Cambridge’s Clare College, Barber added that social media platforms provided a mechanism for distributing fake news and that, while technology companies were starting to react to the issue, more needed to be done by them to take responsibility for the content they hosted.
He said: “What makes fake news qualitatively and quantitatively different from the past is that technology – via search engines and social media platforms – offers an unprecedented opportunity to spread it in real time and at scale.
“The new eco-system of digital media distribution has encouraged these fake news providers – the merchants of doubt – to flourish.
“Top performing election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.
The dominant technology sites must recognise they need to take more responsibility for the content which appears on their sites, not just fake news but also hate speech and extremist propaganda.
“Second, they must drop the pretence that they are simply platforms and channels for publishers’ rather than media companies themselves. They have fast become the main source of news for significant portions of society.
“The reality is that they are influencing or even deciding via algorithms what information is consumed. Indeed, they retain the power to both to remove or publish content without assuming liability.”
Barber also warned delegates that, in order to survive, news publishers must embrace the opportunities created by the digital revolution and look away from print to create a brand that incorporated other forms of journalism.
He said: “It is up to us as journalists to produce the product that will appeal to readers and advertisers alike that will secure our future.
“We’ve succeeded by transforming our own business model, charging for content, raising prices and building a subscription business which has allowed us to steadily reduce our dependence on ad revenue.
“We’ve developed a base of digital subscribers which accounts for more than 80 per cent of our worldwide readership of 890,000. And advertising revenues account for less than half of our overall business.
He added: “At the FT, we are proud of our 129-year heritage and our global outlook. The value of a brand depends on a distinctive voice, especially commentators prepared to go against the grain, and speak truth to power.”