Apr 15

Andy Mitchell and Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributors on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

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Sep 11

Should states subsidise news media?

I listened a few days ago to a lecture devoted to arguing that the economic crisis of news media in America is so bad that the government should be giving journalism direct financial support. I’m very wary of these arguments. But because I think this is a subject which is going to keep cropping up, it’s worth pausing to look at this case in full.

The speaker was Robert McChesney, an American journalism professor (and much more unusual in the US, a socialist) who argues that journalism is a public good and that as such it needs and deserves public support. McChesney has recently edited a collection of essays arguing variations on this theme.

McChesney’s key points were:

  • The frequent, instant dismissal of subsidy is wrong because assuming that journalism can be a business is the wrong starting point. Journalism is essential for democracy and as a public good deserves to be sustained by public funds. The idea that journalism can be solvent is an illusion. Just because for one period in recent history advertising cross-subsidised news, doesn’t mean that solvency is attainable. Journalism is too important to depend on the accidents of business.
  • When anyone raises the idea of subsidy, scare tactics suggest that this is the start of something which will end in media control as practised by Stalin or Pol Pot. This is absurd, considering that many European states subsidise news. In fact the top five or six countries in The Economist’s annual quality-of-democracy league are the top media subsidisers. The same overlap occurs in the Freedom House democracy table.
  • The crisis of the press is part of a wider democratic decline. The three worst political sleaze scandals in recent years in Washington were Abramoff, Cunningham (both lobbyists) and Tom DeLay (congressman). The three reporters who broke those stories are now all unemployed. A business-dependent press has failed in its duty of making politicians and policymakers accountable, especially when covering (or failing to cover properly) the making of war and the steering of the economy.
  • An American BBC is not the answer: the BBC’s monolithic structure and entrenched monopoly itself causes a problem. Independent, multiple public-service broadcasters would be better.

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