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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Late last week, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the site’s 2 billion users and the businesses that depend on their attention will begin to experience a great change in the social media platform.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Here’s what you can expect to see, more posts, photos and videos from your friends and family. That means less content from businesses, brands and fewer news articles, too. Zuckerberg predicts you'll spend less time on Facebook, as a result and says this will be, quote, “good for people's well-being.”
BOB GARFIELD: The site’s new algorithm is a gut punch for the already staggering news industry which, for the past several years, has been enticed into ever more dependence on Facebook for reaching its audience. Today, 45% of all Americans get news on Facebook, but for most news organizations that audience will be decimated, sparing not even the Bay Area’s own San Francisco Chronicle.
Audrey Cooper, the paper’s editor-in-chief, penned a scathing open letter to Zuckerberg last week, warning of the damage to the news business and to democracy. Audrey, welcome to the show.
AUDREY COOPER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to Mark Zuckerberg in the flesh at, at an event, I think, in San Francisco but do you remember his exact words?
AUDREY COOPER: He said, I just want you to know I appreciate you and I appreciate all the work the Chronicle does. You guys are really important and I know Facebook has a role in that too, and we really want to help you, particularly around subscriptions.
BOB GARFIELD: Well?
AUDREY COOPER: Spoiler alert. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] So was he lying?
AUDREY COOPER: He seemed genuine. That was April. That's before they were compelled to come and testify before Congress. A lot of things changed. Now, Facebook says the news is messy, it makes people anxious, it makes you angry, and they really want to reconnect people with their friends and family, which is all good and well, unless you think about the type of stories that your friends and family [LAUGHS] are sharing.
BOB GARFIELD: Aha, and that’s key to this point because one of the reasons, presumably, that Facebook is doing this is to deal with the fake news problem. It was tied up in the controversy over the election and all of the phony highly-politicized material that was traded freely on Facebook, and this change in the algorithm, they believe, will enable them to sort of wash their hands of the whole thing.
AUDREY COOPER: You see, I don't believe they think that. I believe they don't know how to fix the problem they created when 140 million Americans saw Russian propaganda touted as news on their platform. If anything, this change in how you see your news feed is actually going to make the problem of fake news and the country's absolutism a lot worse.
Hundreds of thousands, millions of people around the country opted in to follow legitimate news publishers to cut through the noise, to try to get direct-from-the-source real news, and by suppressing that sort of news, by saying that you, Bob, even though you decided to follow The New York Times or NPR or the San Francisco Chronicle, we think we know what's best for you and we’re gonna suppress that anyway. But we’ll still give you the InfoWars conspiracy fake news stuff that your crazy second uncle is sharing.
BOB GARFIELD: You said that the audience opted to go to Facebook for news but so did publishers. Publishers kind of rejiggered their business models to accommodate Facebook and other social media platforms. The analogy I keep glomming onto is that is this as if the car manufacturer was told by some third-party, like a government, we’re switching from the English system to the metric system, so all of your parts now have to be in metric, and the industry spends a gazillion dollars retooling to accommodate the metric system and then two years later the same third-party authority says, yeah, you know, we kind of like the English system, it makes people happier.
AUDREY COOPER: At the end of the day, they make these very seemingly capricious decisions. They don't get any buy-in for it. But, you know, the people who say news media shouldn't have relied on Facebook, I just say, well, what was the option? You know, to ignore where everybody else was reading news?
I became a subscriber to the Washington Post and The New York Times and Mother Jones magazine because I saw their stories in my news feed and I would click through and I really got engaged with that content and I became a subscriber. Almost every major newsroom in America nowadays is funded that way, at least in part.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is this infrastructure at Facebook of people who fan out and deal with all the publishers who use the platform, or many of them, and kinda help them hack the algorithm in order to, you know, get the most audience engagement. Have they been in contact with the Chronicle to say, well, you know, yeah, yeah, you’re gonna lose some reach but if you do this, if you do that, you know, you can at least at the margin get the most of the new news feed?
AUDREY COOPER: I haven’t heard any explicit advice come from Facebook. The day that Mark made his posting, saying, you know, essentially, news makes you cranky and anxious, so we’re going to suppress it, that day we got an email from our contact on a corporate level with Facebook. You know, we’re lucky we’re owned by a corporation that has a lot of newspapers and it's easy to communicate with us. The tiny neighborhood blogs didn't get that. The school district blogger didn't get that. [LAUGHS] Forget about the news industry, the nonprofits that rely on Facebook to post to people who might be interested in subscribing or donating, they didn't get that, either.
And, you know, I have to make the point that the San Francisco Chronicle is not going to go out of business because Facebook changed its algorithm. It was never our biggest source of traffic to sfchronicle.com. What I am worried about, however, are the number of companies that aren’t able to sustain themselves with new subscriptions, like we do, that did rely on Facebook to direct traffic their way. I think that’s a major problem for this country.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, from the beginning, Mark Zuckerberg has made the claim that Facebook is not a publisher, it is a platform and, as a consequence, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it's held harmless for libel and certain copyright infringement issues, and so forth. But, over the years, it has very much become a publisher. It prints news and other content and sells advertising against it, which is, you know, one pretty good definition of what a publisher does. Is that what this is about?
AUDREY COOPER: I, I think, absolutely, Mark Zuckerberg wishes he could put the genie back in the bottle. You can't. We have trained this country to be able to get real news on Facebook. That's just a fact. If you build your company and change the way that discourse happens, I believe you have a responsibility to your shareholders, to your users and to this country to do right by it and not just shrug your shoulders, say, we can't stop click bait or the Russians, so we give up.
BOB GARFIELD: Audrey, thank you very much.
AUDREY COOPER: Thank you. I appreciate you doing this.
BOB GARFIELD: Audrey Cooper is editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Stevan Dojčinović is the editor-in-chief of the Serbian website, K-R-I-K. That’s an acronym for Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, an nonprofit news organization in Belgrade. But krik is also the Serbo-Croatian word for scream and, in a sense, KRIK screams routinely about the corruption and authoritarianism that continues to plague the nominal democracy that's emerged in the 17 years since the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević. But Dojčinović has screamed most recently in The New York Times in an op-ed on how Facebook's decision to move Serbian news into a separate feed called Explore literally marginalized independent journalism in a market dominated by the soft censorship of the Aleksandar Vučić regime.
STEVAN DOJČINOVIĆ: The government mostly use the financial tools to control the media, and what they do, they’re basically giving advertising money to the media who are loyal to them. Vučić had under his control the really nasty tabloids and if he doesn’t like you, he’ll put his tabloids against you. And I always went through this. There was a couple of times they published really nasty stuff about me, calling me like mafia figure or criminal reporter, terrorist. We are not the only one who are independent media but there’s kind of less and less of us. For that reason, for us, actually, the Facebook itself and social networks are becoming more and more important in terms of spreading our news.
BOB GARFIELD: As I understand it, there are three ways for a third-party publisher to have a story appear in my news feed, or at least were until this change. The first was that I’m a user, I post a story that’s of interest to me, and it goes organically to my Facebook friends. Another way is for me to pay Facebook to post it and give it prominence. And then the third was in partnership with Facebook, where I do stories that are exclusive to the Facebook feed and Facebook and I share the revenue for that. Which of those three mechanisms is the one that you most depended on?
STEVAN DOJČINOVIĆ: Basically, we published the news on our Facebook page. Deciding about each specific story, we were thinking about what kind of audience will be interested and then we pay money and send this news to the audience which we specifically choose. Before the Explore Feeds, it was easy to reach the people that already liked our page. So we were never even trying to boost for our own audience who liked our page. We were always, through boost, we used to reach some other audience, which is not on our page.
After the Explore Feed is introduced, now we are just basically paying money to reach our own audience. This thing really hurt us.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, before Facebook announced its changes in the United States, which is by far its largest market, Serbia was part of an experiment that took place in a number of countries, Guatemala, Slovakia, Bolivia, and Cambodia, in which the news was suppressed in the news feed. And there was a story in The New York Times earlier this week that these algorithm changes are actually resulting in more fake news [LAUGHS] in these countries that were subjects of experiments. Did that happen in Serbia?
STEVAN DOJČINOVIĆ: Yeah, that’s logical because the really dangerous fake news websites and portals, they are usually owned or controlled by some top government officials who easily control them or they have media in Serbia controlled by organized crime figures, and they have a lot of money, and they produce fake news, which is used for clear political or criminal purpose. So with the money they have, they will always be able to pay more and reach bigger audience through the Facebook. And for us, it’s much harder to get back.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one more thing. As we discussed earlier, you are in a country where press freedom is suppressed by the Vučić regime, which is, obviously, bad for democracy. Is it more or less dangerous when that power is placed in the hands of one private company?
STEVAN DOJČINOVIĆ: Everything in the country is now controlled by one person, and that’s always dangerous. On other side, independent media, they are relying on the Facebook, so our destiny is really in the hands of the one company. And what we see now is that after this experiment that was done in my country and a couple of more countries, now the Facebook will be trying to introduce the same change on the Facebook worldwide, but eventually I think everybody understands that this -- it’s not good cure for fake news.
BOB GARFIELD: Stevan, thank you.
STEVAN DOJČINOVIĆ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Stevan Dojčinović is the editor-in-chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK, an investigative news outlet based in Belgrade, Serbia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.