Financial Times Group chief executive John Ridding believes the epidemic of fake news being spread on Google and Facebook reflects a bigger issue in the distortion of the online news ecosystem, such that the solution is not in hiring a team of fact-checkers, but in creating an infrastructure that values premium, paid-for news.
The media chief said the FT is in talks with both Facebook and Google about creating a model that allows publishers with paywalls to charge for content on those platforms, believing that the price of content shouldn’t change per platform just because the user has been preconditioned to expect news to be free.
For Facebook this would mean introducing a paid-for version of its Instant Articles product, whereby users wishing to access FT journalism will have to pay the same rate as its website users do.
For Google it would mean “rethinking” its First Click Free program, which requires paywalled news publishers to allow those who click to their stories from Google’s search results to have free access, for up to three stories per day.
“The problem is that applies across devices so frankly you get a lot of free content,” said Ridding, speaking at the FT’s Future of Media and Telecoms conference.
While the companies “are aware it is a major problem and it is bad for them”, Ridding said, the initiatives they have launched to appease publishers, including Facebook hiring a team of fact checkers, don't get to the root of the problem.
“It's like whack-a-mole – you can hit it on the head but there is always going to be more, you are never going to win. You have to make sure that the ecosystem you have created... is a viable platform fair for reader revenue models,” he said.
This, according to Ridding, is essential in sustaining newsrooms and quality journalism. With advertising pressures mounting on newspapers that have traditionally relied on the popularity of print, Ridding suggested that it is necessary for those publishers to “have some kind of viable reader revenue on quality journalism” in order to weather the storm. What’s more, that model should not be undermined by the free nature of social platforms.
“Fundamentally the thing that concerns me, we have these giant platforms, in particular Facebook and Google, and they compromise quality journalism, because they are biased towards free, and the algorithms they have in place are prejudice against quality journalism. To give a fair shake of the dice there does need to be change in the way that traffic works,” he said.
It’s not the first time a media company has demanded a fairer value exchange for distributing its content on Facebook. The Times’ chief marketing officer Catherine Newman took a similar stance in January when she questioned why the publishing industry has been falling into the digital trap of charging readers according to platform, rather than charging “based on the value that you think the content is worth”.
“It's all very well for others to say they can build an audience just because they slashed their price – I probably argue you rent that audience for a bit but you never really own them. And for any newspaper or media owner to have any sustainable kind of future, quite frankly we've got to get past that,” she said at the time.
In February Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear told The Drum that Facebook paid the broadcaster a “tiny, minuscule amount of money” for the over 2bn video views it registered to its page last year.
“A proper news organisation can't earn enough money off Facebook to wash its face, it's a huge distortion,” he said.
Such comments led Press Gazette, the trade magazine that supports the journalism industry, to launch a 'Duopoly' campaign and petition in April aimed at rallying Facebook and Google to make a fairer deal with the news industry.
While internally these premium media companies will have inevitably considered pulling out of Google and Facebook’s initiatives to protect the value of their content, in reality most media companies know such a move would lead to a crushing hit in readers.
One only need to look to the Wall Street Journal and the 44% plunge in traffic it suffered after quitting the First Click Free program in February as evidence of this.
But without a deadline and the threat of losing the very content that makes Google and Facebook so powerful, the media giants may not be taking the problem of fake news and fair revenue sharing as seriously as the industry hopes.
Johnny Hornby, founder and chief executive of The&Partnership, is one of the only media executives to enforce a timeline by which Google and Facebook must prove that the industry’s call for change is being heard, or face the consequences.
“They need to act quickly, like now, and make a promise to invest a proper amount of money against a deadline. We need to say that we won’t sit on another panel in Cannes and have this same discussion,” he said at the Guardian Media Summit in March this year, referring to the global advertising event that takes place in June.
Hornby’s comments came in the wake of a number of Times investigations that some of the world’s largest brands and public bodies had inadvertently been funding hate speech and terrorism by having their advertising appear next to unverified YouTube videos.
The FT’s Ridding said that it had made it “pretty clear” to Google and Facebook that the issues associated with free content was “urgent” and “in everyone’s interests” to change, but did not provide a timeline for when it would take action to force the two companies to implement new measures, saying only they “they need to do it much faster”.
“The mission statement of Google is to organise the world's information, but there is not much point in that mission if the information isn't worth organising,” he added. “It’s about making sure that ecosystem enables, supports, and is fair to quality journalism.”