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Platforms Act – Publisher React

For two decades, Google’s and Facebook’s algorithms have kept publicist media on a string. But they still produce independent quality journalism, they say.

The power of platforms has fundamentally changed the media landscape, affecting how we get news, how it is produced, how politics works and how we connect with one another. These are the conclusions of a new book by the Professor of political communication and Director of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Assistant Professor Sarah Anne Ganther.
The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Society is based on over 50 interviews with media executives in the US, France, Germany and the UK and provides a brilliant overview of the development in traditional media over the past two decades with big tech platforms.

The Challenges
Almost no publishers have turned their backs on platforms, but all are directly or indirectly influenced by them. From being powerful bodies, news media are now more in the same position as ordinary users, according to the book.
Some publishers have become slaves to Facebook’s algorithms, which are constantly changing and that is risky. 2/3 of all users on the media Upworthy disappeared after just one change.
Google and Facebook have so much power that they influence the law and our values and behaviour just as publicist media once did – and still do to a certain extent.
The platforms set the rules; who can participate and under what conditions, which they change constantly, so publishers have to spend a lot of resources to keep up.

While publishers have difficulty finding alternative platforms, platforms can always find other publishers.

From The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Socity

Very few media – with German Axel Springer as a clear exception – are critical of the platforms. Even state-supported media with less at stake have refrained from being critical.

The Positives
According to the book, publishers that are English-speaking and pursue scale have gained the most from the cooperation with big platforms, while media with narrow languages or based in poor countries have gained the least.
Some publishers have managed to reinvent themselves and live well together with the platforms. An example is The New York Times, which has the whole world as its market and has managed to build a large base of paying digital subscribers.
Digital-born media has gained customers through social media in particular. An example in the book is French MediaPart.
Finally, most media still get most traffic directly rather than through the two platforms, although it is close to 50/50 depending on the media type.

Although the book does not go out of its way to recommend solutions, it mentions two interesting options.

On option is creation of public service platforms to compete with private for-profit platforms. Here, democratic values should be prioritized over profit. The BBC floated the idea 2015 announcing that in the coming decade, the corporation would “apply platform thinking” to its online products and create “a place that enables multiple producers and users to interact and create value for each other, according to the book. German politicians have advocated for a pan-European platform.

In Denmark, we have quite a lot of media subsidies, which undoubtedly have curbed publishers dependence on Google and Facebook. But most Danish publishers have over the years given up having discussions on their own websites and in stead left it to Facebook. Politicians could demand of publishers, who get public support, including the equivalent to the BBC, DR, to establish a national platform, where Danes could interact freely without being profiled.

The second solution also points to increasing collaboration among publishers. Collaboration on one specific solution to joing specific problems a promising route, according to the book. It could be collaboration on specific challenges such as advertising, distribution and subscriptions. This is already done in different countries.

Funding Disclaimer
In any case, the big platforms are here to stay, accoding to the authors, whose relationship with the two big platforms is very similar to that of publishers. Reuters Institute has received 13,3 mio pounds from Google and 3,3 mio pounds from Facebook in media support, as they appropriately disclaim times in the book.

Let’s hope that the authors of the book are truely independent of their funders, which they say they are. Just as the publishers interviewed in their book claim; despite the disruption of their industry and a clear dependency on the big platforms the publishers still say that they produce independent quality journalism.

A version of this article was first published in the Danish daily Politiken

Translated partly