A rising Trump tide will not lift all boats — some will be swamped

In my year-end prediction for 2017, I wrote about the continuing pressure that Facebook was exerting on the media industry, both from a financial perspective and a cultural one, and how this was forcing many publishers into a kind of devil’s bargain: Benefit from Facebook’s reach, but only at the cost of handing over all of your content, as well as control over your future.

If anything, this pressure has intensified—not just because Facebook continues to grow, but because it and Google continue to vacuum up the lion’s share of the digital advertising market. According to one recent estimate, the two will account for 185 percent of the growth in the digital ad market this year, meaning many of the existing players will be forced to shrink.

Over the past year, some publishers have been able to hedge this reliance on Facebook by expanding their subscription offerings. The New York Times is the most obvious success story—it has almost doubled the number of subscribers in the past year. Other outlets have also seen success, including the Washington Post, and The Guardian has managed to sign up ** readers for its membership program.

In many cases, the rise of Donald Trump and his almost daily attacks on the press appear to have been a big part of driving more people to sign up for these kinds of subscription and membership plans, causing what some have called a “Trump bump.”

This is good news, of course. Anything that helps media companies survive and challenge the powerful should be celebrated, even if it only comes because the country has been pitched into a never-ending vortex of fear and hypocrisy by the president of the United States. But there are downsides to this as well, and I think those will become obvious over the coming year.

One of the obvious downsides is that while fear and/or dissatisfaction with Trump may be boosting the fortunes of some media outlets, it is also boosting the fortunes of many publications on the “alt right” side of the spectrum, not to mention outright racists and trolls of every stripe.

For these kinds of outlets, political and social polarisation is the name of the game, and misinformation is the weapon of choice. And no matter how much fact-checking and verification happens, there will be those who prefer to listen to such messages because they confirm their worst suspicions.

Another downside is that this rising tide of interest in media subscriptions cannot possibly lift all boats. Just from a purely financial perspective, there are not going to be enough people who are willing to pay for subscriptions to multiple outlets.

While the Internet may have made the supply of information virtually limitless, the supply of money with which to pay for it remains painfully finite. And that means every subscription to the New York Times or Washington Post makes it less likely other outlets will get a subscriber.

In the end, some media outlets simply aren’t going to be able to get enough subscription revenue to survive, at least not without shrinking their cost base radically—something that arguably needs to happen anyway, since that cost structure was designed for a very different time, when geographic monopolies were essentially a license to print money.

It’s not just a question of subscriptions to high-profile entities like the New York Times and Washington Post making it harder for the smaller outlets to get subscribers, however.  Some newspapers may find it difficult to get enough traction with their paywalls because they have lost touch with their local markets after decades of chain ownership.

In essence, if you want to convince large numbers of people to donate or subscribe, you either have to have a large and powerful brand like the New York Times, or you have to be small and targeted enough that a significant part of your market believes you are worth supporting.

So if your paper spent the last decade or so running a lot of wire stories, or filler from columnists who couldn’t locate your town on a map, or you supplemented your online presence with Outbrain and Taboola and a bunch of clickbait content because you couldn’t come up with a real strategy, don’t expect readers to beat down your door volunteering to pay you.

The “Trump bump” may have provided a short-term boost, but the reality is that no matter who you are, you have to be providing some net tangible benefit for your readers if you expect them to part with a monthly fee in return for your content. And that means you have to give them something unique—either a perspective on a topic or a geographic location, or both. Or a global brand name.

You may protest that your journalism is valuable and necessary, and therefore readers should support you. But if you can’t prove that it is valuable and necessary, then by definition it isn’t.

This is going to require a significant reorientation for some publishers, who have gotten used to being the only game in town. It is going to take some soul-searching about what role they need to play, or can play, and how to maximise the benefit to the largest number of people. And it’s going to mean actually listening to readers, which is something many media outlets have never been that good at.

Those who can’t offer something unique will find themselves taking on water in both directions: Their ad revenue will continue to decline at an ever-increasing pace thanks to Google and Facebook, and their subscription revenue won’t be enough to make up the gap. And eventually the waves will break over the gunwales and there will be little or nothing they can do about it.

The media today: Google starts its ad-blocking purge in February

The media today: Google starts its ad-blocking purge in February

If you’re a publisher that relies on digital ad revenue—and the vast majority of news sites probably fall into that category—you will have a new problem to worry about as of February: That’s when Google starts blocking certain types of ads by default for users of its Chrome browser.

The fact that Google planned to make this move was first reported earlier this year by the Wall Street Journal, but the exact timing was unknown. On Tuesday, the web giant said in a blog post that it will start blocking sites on February 15th.

The company says this is an attempt to clean up the messy state of online advertising, which is awash in pop-ups, interstitial ads, auto-playing videos, and other detritus. And it says it will only block ads that fail to abide by guidelines set by the Coalition for Better Ads (of which Google is a member).

The blocking comes with a nuclear option: If a site falls below a certain threshold for 30 days, Google will block all advertising on the site until it takes action to fix whatever problems have been reported.

Google’s motive may be to clean up the web, but some are concerned that a company which already controls a huge proportion of the digital ad market is blocking other people’s ads by default in Chrome, which also happens to have the lion’s share of the world’s web-browser market.

Here are a few more links on the topic:

  • The ad duopoly: Google controls over 40 percent of the digital ad market, according to recent estimates. Combined, the web giant and Facebook have about 70 percent of the market.
  • 1-800-Antitrust: When the news first broke about Google’s plans, Cornell law professor James Grimmelmann said that they could raise potential anti-trust concerns.
  • Click here to submit: Google says offending sites that are penalized by its default blocking can ask for a review and if they pass then their ads will be shown again.
  • Is this okay or not? Judging by some of the comments on Google’s support forums, some website owners are having a hard time figuring out what they have done wrong.


Other notable stories:

  • Leaked documents show that Mashable, which agreed to sell itself to Ziff Davis recently for $50 million (about 20 percent of its previous value), was losing money at a prodigious rate. The company lost over $4 million in just three months.
  • A Vox feature tells the story of women who decided to get out of journalism because of the sexual harassment they faced on the job. Former Washington Post reporter Kate Havard left because “I decided I didn’t want to have to fend off gross sources for the rest of my life.”
  • Bloomberg says billionaire Carlos Slim, who helped bail the New York Times out by lending the company $250 million in 2009, plans to sell about half the shares he got in the paper as a result of that deal, taking his stake from 15 percent to about 8 percent.
  • Diana Moskovitz writes for Deadspin about what it was like to work for the NFL Network, the media arm of the National Football League. In addition to the long hours and working on shows like “Behind the Pom-Poms,” the job included having to make calls and gather documents whenever a player got arrested.
  • Facebook’s test of a split news feed, in which mainstream news sites appear in a separate feed, caused traffic to fall by as much as 60 percent at some Slovakian news sites, but fake news providers weren’t affected as badly, according to journalist Filip Struhárik.
  • A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers says that the number of people who subscribe to Netflix is now equal to the number who pay for traditional cable, and the accounting firm expects the former to continue to outpace the latter.


The media today: The net neutrality fight continues

The media today: The net neutrality fight continues

The net neutrality clock is ticking down to midnight. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on whether to roll back the neutrality protections the Obama administration put in place in 2015. Those rules prevent cable and telecom companies from charging more for certain kinds of content, or giving favorable treatment to specific sites and services.

The neutrality fight has drawn support from a number of quarters, including the geek community at Reddit, which has done a better job of covering the issue than many mainstream media outlets. The founders of the early Internet — including Vint Cerf and web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee — have spoken out against the move. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel took the unusual step of begging voters to put a stop to the planned changes by chairman Ajit Pai.

This issue is about more than just a political battle, however. A new report from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society argues that if net neutrality disappears, it could have a significant negative effect on the local journalism market in the US. In the report, Adam Hersh says the market for local news is in an extremely fragile state, thanks in part to the decline of print advertising — much of which has moved to the web, and to Facebook — and the gradual decline in traditional viewership and readership.

At the same time, he argues, local journalism plays a vital civic role, because it is often the first source of information in a crisis and is backed by a depth of knowledge about local politics and culture. The risk, Hersh says, is that a market without net neutrality protections “favors big players that can negotiate effectively with ISPs, and reduces content providers’ ability to innovate without permission.” That could make it very hard for local news providers to take the action they need to in order to thrive.

Here’s more on the issue and why it’s important:

  • How the web is like radio: Smithsonian magazine looks at how the net neutrality debate has its roots in regulations that were originally designed for another new technology called radio.
  • Trolling the chairman: FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn hid her message to FCC chairman Ajit Pai in her recommended edits on the document rolling back net neutrality.
  • Not you too, Canada! According to leaked documents, Canada’s biggest cable and telecom companies also want to roll back net neutrality provisions, under the guise of fighting piracy
  • Students could suffer: If ISPs start to give preferential treatment to their own video content, or charge more for content from external sources, that could affect the abilities of students who are using video to study, some educators say.
  • Comcast’s promise: The cable giant says it doesn’t plan to create paid “fast lanes” for certain kinds of traffic, but others — including the former chairman of the FCC — are skeptical.


Other notable stories:

  • BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein and Ryan Mac report on some leaked documents that appear to show how former White House adviser Steve Bannon and alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopolous spent more than a year trying to come up with ways to wage war on Twitter because they believed that it silenced conservative voices.
  • The New York Times’ Kevin Roose takes a look at the parallel Internet that members of the alt right have created for themselves, including websites and social apps like Gab, and finds that for the most part they are “ghost towns, with few active users and no adult supervision.”
  • Traffic magazine, which is published by paywall-management provider Piano Media, has a feature looking at Jessica Lessin, founder of technology news site The Information, and how she approaches running a publishing company that relies solely on subscriptions.
  • According to an analysis by Parse.ly, a web traffic-measurement firm, Google is sending more traffic to publishers than Facebook, for the first time in a number of years. The level of traffic the social network sends to the average publisher has fallen while Google’s influence has risen.
  • The Center for Media Engagement looked at what happens when media outlets include some of the “trust indicators” favored by the Trust Project (which is funded in part by Google). The indicators include bios for reporters, labels for analysis pieces, footnotes and background about the story, and the study found readers said the publication was more reputable if it used those indicators.


The pluses and minuses of Twitter as free speech cop

Over the past year, neo-Nazi and alt-right groups have gained increasing prominence, in part because of the rise of Donald Trump and his tacit — and not so tacit — support. And as these agitators have become more active online, critics and victims of their attacks have called on social networks like Twitter to take some action against them.

In an attempt to do so, Twitter is rolling out a new set of rules this week aimed at stifling the activities of neo-Nazis and other hate groups. Within hours of the announcement, a number of prominent alt-right accounts including ** had been taken offline.

The move is being cheered by many as a belated step in the right direction, a suggestion that Twitter has finally gotten the message about the need to filter or block certain kinds of speech.


At the same time, however, Twitter is also coming under fire for blocking the account of Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas, a move that raises some difficult questions about the company’s ability to censor speech, and the risks that doing so poses both for Twitter and for society as a whole.

Blocking or banning Nazi groups and white supremacists may garner virtually unanimous plaudits for Twitter, especially since the problem has been going on since well before the 2016 election. The company’s commitment — or lack thereof — to cracking down on accounts that advocate violence or hateful conduct has been a topic of conversation among Twitter critics for years.

The flip-side of this newfound desire to regulate the speech of certain political accounts is that Twitter has now put itself in the position of being an arbiter of what is appropriate commentary.

Although the company is well within its rights to block or allow whatever it wants to on its platform (since the First Amendment only applies to government action), Twitter’s regulation of speech brings with it significant risks that the platform may remove certain kinds of speech that deserve to be more widely heard, such as the posts by Wael Abbas.

Abbas has been documenting Egyptian government abuse of its own citizens on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, including police brutality and assault, since before the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. His account was suspended by YouTube in 2007 but was later restored. His Facebook account has also been deleted at least once because of controversy over the content he was posting.

By removing his account, other activists say Twitter has deleted a record of the abuse committed by the government. It’s not clear why Abbas had his account suspended, but some believe it might have come as a result of pressure from Egyptian authorities. Twitter won’t say why Abbas’ account has been blocked, saying it doesn’t comment on individual accounts.

The suspension is particularly ironic given that Twitter got a lot of attention for saying during the Arab Spring uprising that it would not stand for totalitarian attempts to crack down on speech by citizens. “The tweets must flow,” the company said in a blog post in 2011. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

The following year, however, Twitter rolled out a new feature it called “country-withheld content,” which blocked certain kinds of content (including user accounts) within a specified geographical area due to local content and speech laws. In Germany, for example, tweets from Nazi and neo-Nazi groups are censored because such views are against the law.

In many ways, Twitter has been struggling with its complicated relationship to speech ever since. On the one hand, the company used to trumpet the fact that it was “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” as one of its senior executives once said. But at the same time, it has faced increasing pressure to remove offensive speech and behavior.

In response to questions from British MPs about hate speech on the platform, Sinead McSweeney — Twitter’s vice president of public policy and communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa — said that the company has realized it is no longer possible to stand up for all speech.

“I look back over last 5 1/2 years, and the answers I would have given to some of these questions five years ago were very different,” McSweeney said. “Twitter was in a place where it believed the most effective antidote to bad speech was good speech. It was very much a John Stuart Mill-style philosophy. We’ve realized the world we live in has changed.”

But this raises the question of what criteria Twitter is using to decide which speech to remove or block. Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, which is said to be close to the government, stated on its site that Wael Abbas’ account was suspended because Twitter was concerned about “his intention to incite violence, which runs contrary to its guidelines.”

In a Facebook post, Abbas said that when he was first notified by Twitter about the suspension last week, the company said in an email that his account would be deactivated permanently, but in a follow-up email the Egyptian journalist said that Twitter told him his account had been suspended for a specific period, but it didn’t specify how long or the reason for the suspension.

On the Egyptian blog he co-founded, Misr Digital, Abbas said that “Twitter blocking my account, which documented life in Egypt for 10 years — politics, activism, atrocities, corruption and revolution — is exactly like Hitler burning books. A treasure for researchers has been lost, this is what some of those researchers already told me. Thousands of pictures, videos and live streams from the middle of every crisis in Egypt, with date stamp on them, reporting on people who got tortured, killed or missing.”

Some warn that as Twitter becomes more aggressive at taking down controversial content or accounts, it runs the risk of being played by online trolls who have learned how to gang up on certain users by flagging or reporting their accounts and tweets, causing them to be suspended or blocked by Twitter. According to one recent report, this happened to a Reuter’s journalist whose account was suspended.

Is Facebook a threat to journalism? Yes, and here’s why

At some point over the past few years, Facebook stopped being a mostly harmless social network filled with baby photos, and became one of the most powerful forces in media—an entity unlike any the world has ever seen, with more than two billion users every day and a growing stranglehold on the advertising market that used to underpin most of the media industry.

When it comes to threats that journalism faces, in other words, Facebook clearly deserves to be on the list, whether it wants to admit it or not. It has taken over most of the distribution system news outlets used to control, and along with that has come billions of dollars in ad revenue—revenue that media companies once relied on to fund their journalism.

Facebook “is already a significant threat and it has been for awhile,” says Martin Nisenholtz, former head of digital strategy for the New York Times. “Along with Google, it is absorbing most of the growth in the digital marketplace.”

In many ways, Facebook’s relationship with media is the classic Faustian bargain: Media outlets want to reach those two billion users, so they put as much of their content as they can on the network. In some cases, they even create whole teams of journalists to create content that Facebook wants, including video. And they are rewarded by the all-powerful Facebook algorithm.

And what do they get in return? The chance to show people their journalism and hope that they can either convince someone to sign up for a subscription, or that they can survive on the pennies worth of advertising revenue generated by their Facebook content.

Even some of the digital-only media entities who have built their businesses on Facebook and catered to its every whim don’t seem to be able to make this equation work. Mashable, which laid off much of its news staff to focus on video for Facebook, is being acquired by Ziff Davis for 20 percent of what it was valued at a year ago, and BuzzFeed has reportedly missed its revenue targets.

Facebook, on the other hand, only reinforces its status as the destination for news by aggregating increasing amounts of it from desperate partners. One recent study found that almost half of the people who got news on Facebook couldn’t remember the original source of the content. In other words, Facebook is slowly replacing media outlets as the brand people associate with news.

The long-term threat goes beyond just getting paid in pennies for producing the content Facebook wants. As digital advertising weakens as a source of revenue—thanks to Google and Facebook’s growing control—media companies are having to rely more subscriptions. But the readers they want to reach are all on Facebook consuming content for free.

The largest journalistic outlets—places like the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Guardian—have the kinds of international brands that will allow them to continue to be advertising destinations, and also get the lion’s share of subscriptions. Media entities that are small and highly targeted may also find enough loyal fans to survive on subscriptions.

But where does that leave the mid-market metro newspaper, which doesn’t have the scale or the reach to mimic the New York Times, but has lost much of its grip on the local market because of chain ownership? Even if Facebook helps with either of those problems, a paper like that risks becoming just another commodity supplier of content to the massive social platform.

“The brutal truth for publishers is that, absent the cost structure and differentiation necessary to create a sustainable destination site that users visit directly, they have no choice but to bend to Facebook’s wishes,” technology analyst Ben Thompson wrote earlier this year. “Given how inexpensive it is to produce content on the Internet, someone else is more than willing to take your share of attention.”

Not only are commodity suppliers usually unable to demand very much in the form of compensation, but they can also be replaced easily—or they might be asked to pay Facebook for the right to reach the users they originally reached for free, something the network has done in the past.

“Facebook seems to be moving towards creating a more robust and curated vertical [for news], and that means they’ll decide which brands they are going to elevate and which they will filter out,” says Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center at Columbia. “There’s an ethical view that this is a terrible state of affairs, since it means that Facebook effectively decides which media outlets survive and which don’t.”

In a recent speech, author Dan Gillmor described a future in which “we will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.”

The nature of the threat from Facebook can be broken down into two general categories, the most significant of which is economic: Since many media companies, particularly more traditional publishers, still rely on advertising revenue to support their journalism, Facebook’s increasing dominance of that industry poses an existential threat to their business model.

According to a recent estimate by media investment firm GroupM, Google and Facebook will account for close to 85 percent of the global digital ad market this year and will take more than 185 percent of the growth in that market—meaning other players will shrink. “This is exceedingly bad news for the balance of the digital publisher ecosystem,” the firm says.

Is any of this Facebook’s fault? Not really. It and Google came up with a more effective way of reaching potential consumers, particularly on mobile. Media companies have failed to adapt quickly enough to digital in general or to mobile, so in some ways they have themselves to blame.

“Did God give us that [advertising] revenue? No,” says CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis. “It wasn’t our money, it was our customers’ money, and Facebook and Google came along and offered them a better deal.” The problem, says Jarvis (whose recently launched News Integrity Project counts Facebook as a major donor) is that “we didn’t change our business models. We insist on maintaining the mass media business model, and that’s more of a problem than social media.”

This doesn’t mean Facebook isn’t still a threat. But it isn’t a threat because Mark Zuckerberg wants to somehow destroy the media industry. It’s like an elephant stepping on an ant—the threat to journalism and to media in general is just something that is happening while Facebook is going about its business.

“Facebook is a threat not necessarily because it’s evil but because it does what it does very well, which is to target people for advertisers,” says Nisenholtz. “Look at BuzzFeed and its latest revenue shortfall, assuming it’s true. There is no company that has done more in a sense to serve Facebook as a content provider and even they’re not achieving their goals.” The question, he says, is “has it become so dominant now that it’s become essentially a monopoly, and if so what should publishers do about it?”

In addition to the economic threat that is taking out journalism’s business model, Facebook also arguably poses a threat to the journalism itself. Into this bucket we can throw things like fake news and misinformation, which works primarily because Facebook focuses on engagement—time spent, clicks and sharing—rather than more substantive measures of quality or value.

In many ways, sociologists say, Facebook is a machine designed to encourage confirmation bias, which is the human desire to believe (and share) things that confirm our existing beliefs about a person or issue, even if they are untrue. As a former Facebook product manager put it: “The news feed optimizes for engagement [and] as we’ve learned in this election, bullshit is highly engaging.”

Facebook has announced a number of attempts to fix its misinformation problem, including a fact-checking project that adds the “disputed” tag to stories that have been flagged by partners. But those efforts have been consistently overshadowed by evidence that some of Facebook’s problems are baked into the platform. For example, research by the Tow Center at Columbia earlier this year showed that posts created by a notorious Russian troll factory were shared hundreds of millions of times.

As journalism entrepreneur David Cohn argued in a blog post earlier this year, Facebook’s main purpose is not information so much as it is identity, and the construction by users of a public identity that matches the group or tribe they wish to belong to. This is why fake news is so powerful.

“The headline isn’t meant to inform somebody about the world,” says Cohn. “The headline is a tool to be used by a person to inform others about who they are. ‘This is me,’ they say when they share that headline. “This is what I believe. This shows what tribe I belong to.’ It is virtue signaling.”

Some of the company’s problems when it comes to news are exacerbated by the fact that, despite some of Facebook’s modest attempts to support news and journalism in a variety of ways over the past year or two, it still isn’t a core focus, and may never be one.

There’s no question that news has become more important to the company than it used to be. Zuckerberg has gone from saying it was “a crazy idea” to suggest that fake news affected the US election to admitting that Facebook does play a role in the dissemination of misinformation, and that Russian troll factories used the platform to try to meddle in the election.

Facebook also supports a range of well-meaning journalistic efforts, including its Facebook Journalism Project, which is aimed at helping newsrooms get more digitally savvy, and the News Integrity Initiative, which Jarvis launched earlier this year with funding from Facebook and a group of other donors.

Former insiders at Facebook, however, say these efforts are primarily designed to be public relations vehicles for the social network, as it tries to stay ahead of federal regulators and others who might want to impose legal restrictions on what it can and cannot do.

“Throwing money at things is a band-aid,” said a former staffer. “They’re not grappling with the real problems their dominance is causing. I left because it became frustrating to know that they weren’t taking seriously the impact they were having on journalism and the news. Not because they’re evil, they’re just much more nimble, and smarter.”

Whether Facebook’s funding efforts are primarily PR gestures (which doesn’t mean they are not doing worthwhile things), the point is that if Facebook cares about these issues at all, it isn’t doing enough to change them. And the reason for that is the same as the reason why Google’s efforts along the same lines tend to be ineffective: Because ultimately they don’t affect the core business of the company, which is to generate as much advertising revenue as possible.

A Google News employee once said that ideas about how to improve it were encouraged, but never got the kind of traction they needed to because they were seen as tangential to the company’s main business. This is a problem at many Silicon Valley companies, where engineering and revenue are seen as the most important, not intangible topics like social value.

Former Facebook employees say the engineering driven, “move fast and break things” approach worked when the company was smaller but now gets in the way of understanding the societal problems it faces. It’s one thing to break a product, but if you move fast and break democracy or move fast and break journalism, how do you measure the broader impact of that?

“I think there’s a possibility that they just don’t know what to do” about any of these larger problems, says Nisenholtz. “I think there’s a chance they don’t have the people in their organization or the DNA to even understand what is going on or what to do about it. I’m fundamentally optimistic about Facebook’s desire to help, but I’m not as optimistic about its ability to help.”

Jarvis, however, believes Facebook does care. “I’ve talked to Chris Cox, the head of product at Facebook, and I believe he cares deeply about news. I think Mark Zuckerberg cares. We have to reinvent journalism… and we should be doing it in partnership with Facebook and Google because they’re a lot fucking smarter about it than we are.”

As much of a threat as Facebook currently represents for the media industry, there are those who believe it could actually get worse. One way it could do so is by continuing to vacuum up even more of the advertising market, to the point where ads are no longer a viable revenue source for media companies at all. For some, that would mean going from ads contributing as much as 60 percent of the revenue to zero.

“The best thing is to have a traditional business and brand but still be flexible and digital,” says Emily Bell. “But there are places where it isn’t really working, like local. There are parts of the media business model that are just broken, like the advertising business—the distribution bottleneck is gone. What the new journalistic business looks like that can not just survive but thrive in this new world we haven’t really figured it out yet.”

Could advertising disappear completely as a viable revenue source? Jason Kint of Digital Content Next—a lobby group that includes some of the largest media brands in the country—says he sees Google and Facebook continuing to dominate “programmatic” or automated advertising. But he believes there is still the potential for other forms of advertising to continue generating revenue for media companies.

Others are much more pessimistic. “Either the advertising business as we know it goes away, or you survive as a media outlet because you are in Facebook’s favor, either algorithmically or otherwise,” says one veteran journalist, who didn’t want his name used because he has to work with Facebook. “There’s no precedent in terms of the size and dominance of it as a media entity, and no one has any idea what to do about it. We are in uncharted territory here.”

There’s another way the Facebook threat could actually get worse: Instead of continuing to be a primary platform for news companies and trying to strike relationships with them, the company could decide to simply wash its hands of news entirely, whether because it isn’t generating enough revenue, or because it has become too much of a political minefield.

For Facebook, it has to be distracting to devote so much of its time and energy to Congressional sub-committees or European Union directives. And for all its attempts to help media companies with revenue sharing or fact-checking, it gets criticized repeatedly for not doing enough.

Moving away from news wouldn’t have to mean getting rid of all news content entirely. It could take the form of a split news feed, one where the majority of content in the main feed is related to personal relationships a user has, and a separate feed includes news articles or content from news brands.

We got a glimpse of what that might look like earlier this year, when Facebook tested a split feed in several Asian and Eastern European countries. News outlets who work in those countries said they saw their traffic from the social network decline by as much as 60 percent overnight.

Ironically, some criticized Facebook for these experiments, because they said the company was messing around with what has become a key source of news for people in struggling democracies like Cambodia, where traditional media is untrustworthy. In many ways, this reinforced the power that Facebook has developed over news consumption not just in the US but around the world.

Could they decide just to give up on news, or relegate it to the sidelines? “I feel like there’s a real chance that they might just decide it’s too much trouble, too much of a PR mess, and they’re not even making that much money from it to begin with,” said one former staffer. “But the genie is kind of out of the bottle now. I’m not sure they can go back at this point.”

The reality is that, in order to really come to grips with what its size and influence have wrought both in journalism and society at large, the company is going to have to not only change its outlook but possibly also its culture. The “move fast and break things” ethos is no longer working, and if anything is holding Facebook back from doing the kinds of things that are required.

The company didn’t set out to kill anything, including media, a former insider says. “Zuck is just a very competitive guy, and he wanted to build the largest company he could. And now he’s won. But they don’t know how to deal with it.” In a way, Facebook is like a band of revolutionaries who don’t know what to do once they topple the dictator and actually become the government.

“Facebook is going to be an important institution, even if it decides it doesn’t want to actually produce journalism,” says Bell. “If it’s here to stay, it needs to be part of figuring this problem out. My worry is that they only see things in market terms, so it’s all about market share. And my biggest fear is that they just sort of give up, and decide it’s just not part of their core vision.”

In that sense, the threat posed by Facebook gobbling up all of the advertising and media content for its own purposes may only be eclipsed by the threat of the company getting out of the business of helping news companies at all, leaving many of them naked and shivering in the cold of a new economic reality.

Reddit’s net neutrality fight shows its power as media entity

Reddit is often dismissed as the digital version of a noisy bar brawl between nerds and misfits, and it has had its share of bad press in the past, thanks to the activities of trolls and offensive sub-Reddits. But when it comes to issues like net neutrality, the site has a way of highlighting not just what’s important about the web but also what average citizens of the Internet can do about it, something few mainstream media outlets tend to do.

Last week, for example, when Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to loosen the existing rules on net neutrality, most traditional news sites published “explainers” describing what net neutrality is and why some believe it to be an important way of protecting Internet freedom. Most of these (with a few exceptions) were were of the standard “one side says this, the other side says that” format.

The front page of Reddit, meanwhile — which normally contains a wide variety of links vying for up-votes from members, from funny GIFs to personal stories — contained an almost unbroken stream of posts about net neutrality, and specifically, the senators and representatives who had failed to defend the principle.

Each of these posts was phrased in a similar way, starting with “Senator X sold me out to the telecom industry for $X,” then listing the amount of political donations from cable or telco companies that each representative had received. According to Reddit, the site’s editors didn’t rig the algorithm in order to set up the front page this way, its members did so by up-voting those posts more than others. And that wasn’t the only day it happened.

These protest posts didn’t come out of nowhere. The site’s co-founders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, have written multiple posts over the past few months calling on members to express their support for the principle, and to take concrete action in other ways as well, including phoning their representatives and talking about why net neutrality matters. And Redditors have responded in droves — in a single week the site saw 50,000 posts with over 350,000 comments that generated more than 21 million votes.

In July, Ohanian wrote that the central idea behind the creation of Reddit was to build “an open platform for communities and their members to find and discuss the content they found most interesting,” but that any future attempts to build such a thing could be threatened by the disappearance of net neutrality protections.

As Ohanian noted with his “we’ve been here before” comment, in some ways Reddit has been training for this moment for years. It was a significant player in the protests in 2012 that helped defeat both SOPA and PIPA, two proposed bills that would have significantly limited freedom of speech online. And Reddit has stood alongside groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU in opposing other similar efforts.

Much like any online community with 250 million members, Reddit contains a broad range of viewpoints, including those who are pro-Trump. But there’s no question that the majority of the site’s users see neutrality as a principle worth fighting for: Ohanian said his post on the issue was one of the most viewed and most up-voted posts in the site’s history. Even the top-rated post in a sub-Reddit about car racing was about net neutrality.

One thing Reddit does well is to bring individual users to the forefront of such issues — so for example, Huffman mentioned in a follow-up post last week how the site had contacted a congressman from Pennsylvania and shared stories from users about the importance of net neutrality.

Those responses came as replies to a post asking users to answer the question: “How would your life change if internet service providers started blocking or throttling certain internet traffic, or creating paid prioritization channels for certain content?”

It’s worth noting that a frequent criticism of traditional media outlets is that they are happy to write news articles about how important a topic is, but they rarely provide any way for readers to take action on those issues. Reddit does this in spades (as do groups such as the ACLU and EFF), including providing lists of congressional phone numbers and addresses, tips on protest methods, etc.

In an important way, what makes Reddit so powerful on issues like net neutrality, ironically, is that it doesn’t have to stick to the neutral or objective position that most media outlets feel they need to uphold. Since in many ways it is an expression of the interests of its members (although Ohanian and Huffman have tried to rein those interests in to remove some of the more offensive elements of the community), it can speak with one voice.

For media purists, this might seem antithetical to journalism. But many believe that one of the core principles of journalism is to “speak truth to power,” and that’s difficult to do when you are saying “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” (something NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call the View From Nowhere).

That’s not to say Reddit doesn’t also play host to more traditionally objective forms of journalism: The site’s Syrian War sub-Reddit, to take just one example, has been a good example of how Reddit can be used as a news curation tool around complex issues, compiling resources and links that are as informative as any mainstream outlet (if not more so) and in many cases doing so much faster.

More than anything else, Reddit’s power on topics like net neutrality comes from the fact that it isn’t a media entity in the normal sense, but a community that also publishes. In a broad sense it is a social network like Facebook or Twitter, but because of its history as a tech-focused news site, its members are much more likely to come together on such issues, and Reddit encourages that deliberately in a thousand different ways.

Somewhere in there is a lesson for media outlets of all kinds, particularly at a time when the future of media seems to rest on connecting with a loyal readership and encouraging them to support you directly rather than relying on whatever scraps of advertising revenue aren’t vacuumed up by Google and Facebook.

Civil says the future of media is blockchains and crypto-currencies

There are plenty of startups trying to reinvent how the news business works by adding features such as micro-payments or setting their sights on becoming “the iTunes of news.” But a startup called Civil is trying to take a quantum leap beyond all of these efforts: It’s not just inventing its own platform for news and journalism, it’s also inventing its own currency and its own monetary system at the same time.

Civil, which was founded by Matthew Iles last year, is building what it hopes will be an open marketplace for journalists, scheduled to launch in the spring of 2018. The building blocks of the project are blockchains and a bespoke crypto-currency, a system of “tokens” that Civil has created that will both fund the development of the platform and be used as compensation for writers and editors who take part in the marketplace.

What he’s trying to create, Iles says, is a marketplace for independent journalism where the individuals who create that journalism are funded directly by their readers, as well as the broader Civil community. Crypto-currency is just a way of making those payments easier, and of giving members a stake in something that might increase in value.

In a sense, it’s like a newspaper company giving its journalists shares in the corporation along with their salary, except that both the shares and the salary are composed of a new kind of currency. And Civil is no doubt hoping it can generate more value than the shares of newspaper companies have.

The company outlined its vision in a June manifesto about “self-sustaining journalism,” as well as a white paper published in October. “With open governance and cryptoeconomics, we can create a sustainable place for journalism?—even the kind of local, policy and investigative journalism that has been most eroded. Decentralization is the key to a free and independent press,” the company said.

The whole idea of crypto-currencies has become hugely popular—every day there are reports about the soaring value of Bitcoin, and news about startups launching “initial coin offerings” instead of equity IPOs. But at the same time, the technology behind these new currencies is still poorly understood by many.

Iles admits that both the hype level around Bitcoin and the complicated nature of the technology present a marketing challenge, in the sense that Civil has to simultaneously explain itself and its reason for being while also trying to explain what a crypto-currency and the blockchain are.

“The hype is definitely both helping and hurting,” Iles says. “I used to have to start conversations with ‘Have you heard of blockchain?’ Now everyone’s heard of it, but the downside is that it has become associated with hype and the crypto bubble etc.” The bottom line, Iles says, is that “it’s just a piece of software.” Much like the Internet itself, it can be used for both good things and bad things. Civil hopes to be one of the good things.

When talking to journalists about why they might want to use or become a member of Civil, Iles says he tells them the platform “offers them the ability to find newsrooms that they can connect with, job possibilities—whether freelance or contract — as well as colleagues and collaborative opportunities. It just happens to be funded and paid in a new way.”

Crypto-currencies are a computer-generated alternative to traditional monetary systems, which rely on governments to back them. Bitcoin, the first crypto-currency, was created in 2009 by a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto (widely believed to be a pseudonym), who described his vision of a peer-to-peer currency. Now there are dozens of different variations, including Ethereum, Litecoin and Dash.

Instead of being dictated by governments, the value in a crypto-currency system comes from computers that perform a series of complicated calculations in order to create new coins, a process known “mining.” The results of this process are recorded in what’s called the “blockchain,” a cryptographically secure ledger that keeps track of every transaction and can be seen by any user. Only a finite number of coins can be created, to prevent inflation.

Civil’s infrastructure, including its version of a crypto-currency, is based on Ethereum. When the platform launches in the spring, it will do an “initial coin offering” that will give its staff—including a number of independent journalists the company is in the process of signing up as members—an ownership stake. And that currency or tokens will also be used to pay journalists who distribute their content through Civil.

Iles says he originally got a journalism degree but then got pulled into marketing. He and his wife created a digital marketing company they later sold, and he started looking for something else to do.

“I had continued to follow the discussions around the state of journalism, and I was struck by how far off the mark everyone was as far as the next thing that was going to save journalism,” Iles says. “No one went to the root cause, which was that journalism needed a new business model. The leading digital advertising companies were the distribution point, and they were just continuing the spiral journalism was going down.”

As he learned more about Bitcoin, Iles says he became convinced that it provided the opportunity to reinvent journalism for the Internet era, and to wean the industry off what he believed was a toxic reliance on advertising.

“I thought we’ve wrapped the world in beams of light with the Internet, and that structure should be a boon to journalism, and free and independent journalism for that matter,” says Iles. “I thought we needed to think more radically, that the existing business model couldn’t just be tweaked back into the service of journalism.”

Civil has raised a total of $5 million from a fund called Consensus Systems that specializes in crypto-currency investments, including a startup called Ujo that is focused on bringing blockchain to the music business.

Maria Bustillos, a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times, is one of those who has signed on to be part of the platform, where she will be running a Civil-based digital magazine called Popula. Among the writers she has lined up are Sasha Frere-Jones, a former writer for the New Yorker.

“I’ve been writing about Bitcoin for a long time,” says Bustillos, “and the more I thought about it the more I thought it could be used for our profession.” With the distributed nature of the blockchain ledger, she says, “there would never be fake news—you’d always be able to verify that someone published something. However many people want to join the network, you would have that many cyber-witnesses.”

The other aspect of the blockchain, she says, is that it could help preserve journalistic archives in a way that would make them impossible to delete, something media companies often do after going out of business, or when they are sued. Google has also removed links to articles after lawsuits involving the European “right to be forgotten.”

“We could remove the ability for billionaires and advertisers to threaten what people write any more,” Bustillos says, because a copy of the archives would be held on the computer of everyone who became a part of the platform. The Popula founder says she is working on incorporating a project called the Interplanetary File System, an attempt to build a massively distributed network of computers to store documents.

When an editor accepts a pitch or assigns a story using Civil, Iles says, the two will discuss payment just as editors and journalists always do, but in this case the editor might offer a number of different forms of compensation. It might be a specific number of Civil coins or tokens, but it could also be a percentage of the increase in value in the crypto-currency over a period of time following the publication of the article.

The assumption, Iles says, is that creating good content and building a community of users around that content will increase the value of the underlying tokens. And he says Civil is being very careful to make sure that its version of an ICO doesn’t get swept up in the hype surrounding all things Bitcoin.

“Given the hype, there would have been plenty of opportunity for us to launch a token off a white paper and raise a bunch of money as some others have,” Iles says. “But that would’ve created a speculative market just to take advantage of a land-grab. W’re taking the long road—we want to launch a real working product with our token, and we will be one of the first crypto-currency platforms of its kind to do that.”

In the same way crowd-funding platforms show potential donors as much information as possible about the project they are funding and what they will get in return for the different tiers of donation, Civil will be as transparent a marketplace as possible, Iles says. Members and journalists alike will be able to see what the current market value of a token is, the increase or decrease over time, and other details about the marketplace.

So what if someone from Breitbart News wanted to create a journalistic outlet or marketplace on the platform? “Civil does not have editorial oversight, as long as members are abiding by ethical guidelines,” says Iles. “We want to decentralize the adjudication of those kinds of decisions to the community.” But Civil will ensure that the content published on its service is “accurate and ethically reported,” he says.

Iles said Civil is talking to a number of other independent journalists like Bustillos about setting up virtual magazines or news entities based on the platform, and the company is also working on partnerships with several large traditional media entities who are thinking about experimenting with the model.