Opinion

It’s time for social media platforms to pay their dues to publishers

With social media benefiting from quality content produced by respected news outlets, The Hoffman Agency's Isabelle Demaude argues it is high time for social platforms to give publishers the credit and recognition they deserve

I think it’s safe to say that communications professionals across the region have resigned themselves to the fact that the media landscape is shrinking. While certain markets like India and Indonesia remain buoyant, there is no denying that the sector overall is strained.

In Singapore, media giant MediaCorp has been gradually cutting 10 per cent of its headcount to keep its newsrooms on “sound and sustainable footing going forward”.

Hong Kong has seen the closure of several iconic titles in recent years including Hong Kong Daily News, The Sun and ATV. Meanwhile, last year, The Wall Street Journal pulled the plug on its print editions in Asia and Europe as the business “reconsidered” its business model.

As the power of paper rapidly declines, traditional media is faced with an arduous battle to keep the dollars rolling in and sustain quality journalism. The ubiquity of news online makes paywalls on mainstream websites difficult to maintain – people simply go elsewhere.

Sponsored content only goes so far. And so increasingly, we see publications turning to the digital giants – such as Facebook and Google – to drive readers to their websites.

Of course, there you have a catch 22. While becoming more and more reliant on social media, traditional news outlets also blame the platforms for taking away valuable advertising revenue sources and propagating ‘fake news’ that threatens to undermine the entire industry.

Enter an interesting proposition from The News Media Association (NMA), the British newspaper industry’s trade body. Announced this week, it calls on the government to introduce an annual financial levy for social media sites to fund journalism, and set up a regulator that would force them to take responsibility for the content on their platforms.

The body also suggested introducing algorithms that would promote “bona fide” news sources above new entrants, as well as a shared revenue system that would see newspaper groups paid when stories appeared in news feeds, citing that these platforms “make no meaningful contribution to the cost of producing the original content” they benefit from.

While both Facebook and Google have cited initiatives already in place to address these issues (including efforts to combat sensationalism and the establishment of new funds), it’s clear this hasn’t been enough to stem the tide. In the UK, for example, newspaper revenues have halved over the past 10 years. So, could this be the solution to rebalancing the scales between viral cat videos and quality journalism?

Pros:

Beyond the immediate financial gains which could indeed help plug a significant gap in revenues, holding social media sites accountable for the accuracy of content on their platform would go at least some of the way to addressing the proliferation of rumours and unsubstantiated claims, a key concern for markets across Asia Pacific.

For example, in India, there have been dozens of murders in the past year alone associated with the spread of fake news, particularly via WhatsApp.

Meanwhile, by prioritising news from more established sources that demonstrate “consistent quality of journalism”, we may well also see a decline in the influence of clickbait content. Not a complete disappearance – listicles are too good at piquing human curiosity – but with less competition threatening traffic, there’s also less pressure to draw audiences in with sensational headlines.

Cons:

The traditional media in Asia is, in many markets, already considered conservative. There is also the question of censorship, for example, in Singapore, Greater China and the wider Southeast Asian region.

In other words, though the landscape is diverse, diversity of opinion is relatively limited. Proposals that disadvantage smaller news entrants could therefore quash important voices that offer challenging and alternative views. Think, for example, of powerful newcomers like Vice News, Buzzfeed and Vox, and what such a system might have originally meant for them.

There is also the risk that social media platforms will simply abandon news sources altogether – which would ultimately defeat the purpose. A similar proposal from Spain in 2014 ultimately saw Google shut down Google News in the country.

With demands on social media platforms mounting left, right and centre – think GDPR, Cambridge Analytica – it’s unlikely the Silicon Valley giants will accept these requests lying down. In fact, GDPR alone is expected to wipe 7% off of Facebook’s revenues in the region, so any further proposals to erode their numbers are hardly going to go down well.

However, if people are increasingly turning to their newsfeeds for the headlines, it does stand to reason that social media owes publishers the credit and recognition they deserve – and need to help users distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Isabelle Demaude is associate account director at The Hoffman Agency in Singapore

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