Franklin Foer wants journalism to liberate itself from Facebook – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard
In March 2012, when Chris Hughes, the billionaire cofounder of Facebook, took over The New Republic and brought back Franklin Foer as editor, the two were filled with a sense of optimism. They quickly got to work spending Hughes’s money: building up an impressive staff, “leasing offices in prime locations and hiring top-shelf consultants,” and “handsomely paying writers to travel the globe,” Foer confesses in his new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech Companies.
In the end, however, the magazine “couldn’t resist the historical force remaking our profession,” Foer writes. Under Hughes, Foer argues, the publication embraced a reliance on data and algorithms that killed the core values of the magazine. Foer and others were driven out and the publication became a “vertically integrated digital media company,” in the words of its then-new CEO Guy Vidra.
In his book, Foer, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic, ruminates on the power he sees large tech companies holding over media outlets — a power he believes is detrimental to journalistic neutrality, the pursuit of truth, and intellectual rigor. I spoke to Foer about the dependence of media organizations on large tech platforms, his views on subscription-based models, and how he thinks journalism institutions should think about data and algorithms. Here’s our conversation, lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
I actually think we were on a decent course before Chris panicked. If we’d given our business plan a little bit more time, we could’ve probably found a way to limit our losses to something that was reasonable in the short-term. That could’ve gotten us closer to profitability over the long term.
These are just things that take time to build up. They’re specialized and their markets take a whole lot of time to understand. It takes time for the market to appreciate the virtues of a brand. That’s just patience.
Unfortunately, Chris’ ethos, and the ethos of many, many other people who would’ve been put in his position, was not a patient one.
Dependence on the platform is not just hard on the business. I think it’s terrible for the soul, because the values of these platform companies end up shaping the values of all the media outlets that depend on them. Media ends up embracing the ethos of Facebook and Google. Facebook and Google end up worming their way into the very fiber of the organizations that rely on them for traffic — and therefore revenue.
The future of journalism — not just as a business, but as an enterprise — demands that we find some way to break free from the platforms. Newspaper publishers are doing interesting things in this regard in that they’ve decided to take on the platforms as an antitrust issue. They’re trying to find a policy solution for the problem. You know, bravo. You know, kudos to them for making that effort — because that’s probably ultimately what it’s going to take.
But I also think that we need to create cultural conditions in the public that make a subscription model more appealing. That that’s not something that can happen straight away because the public has become so acclimated to getting everything for nothing. Even when the Times imposes paywalls, they’re still not really asking very much of consumers relative to the resources that are required from consumers to fund journalism on that scale. Everything is out of whack right now.
Edward Bernays, who was the godfather of public relations and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote about public relations in the 1920s. He was hired by the book industry after the stock market crash. They needed to find some sort of way to juice the market.
He came up with an elegantly brilliant solution, which was that he promoted bookshelves, which had not been a fixture in middle-class homes until them. He worked with architectural magazines and women’s magazines and home magazines to try to make bookshelves a sign of middle-class life. It seemed to have worked.
I think that something similar could happen with media now, which is that you need to find ways to make media seem like it’s representative of higher standard living. That it’s virtuous. That it’s a prerequisite for being a member of American life and good standing. I think it’s doable. It’s not easy.
While I think everybody needs good information, I also think that we need to respect the fact that there’s always going to be a high-end version of news. That’s gonna cost a hell of a lot of money for consumers to get, and that’s fine. That’s just the way that this ecosystem works. You need healthy elites in order to have a healthy public at large.
I don’t want to be overly binary and say that we should ignore it all together because, look, we’ve always had data in media. We’ve always known how many copies of the newspaper sold. We’ve always looked at newsstand sales of magazines or ratings for TV news. That’s driven decisions since time immemorial, and we want an audience for what we produce. I don’t think that we can banish data all together, but I think we can fetishize it a whole lot less.
Why do I believe that a backlash is possible? First, it’s because I think that it’s inevitable that journalism gets angry at its dependence on Facebook. It looks for ways to liberate itself from Facebook because the financial viability, the profession, ultimately depends on it. Once journalism liberates itself from Facebook, I think that will alleviate some of the obsession with data.
Second, I think that the ethos of journalism is probably not as strong as we thought it was, but there’s still something within journalists that’s gonna ultimately chase against the trends. There’s bound to be a point at which journalism just says, “Enough. We can’t stomach this.” Or at least things start to moderate in some sort of way.
I think it’s a problem. They already control so much access to information and I just don’t think our democracy can sustain having such extreme concentrations of informational power.
It’s because the whole notion of Facebook or Amazon or Google is to be responsive to the market, to give consumers exactly what they desire. If consumers desire fake news and propaganda, then that’s what they get.
The problem is that if Facebook were to acknowledge its ability to gate keep in that sort of way, it would piss a lot of people off, and it would actually highlight the extent of their power. The more that Facebook inserts itself into the middle of controversy, the more it stirs up enemies, the greater the likelihood of there being a movement to regulate Facebook.
I think Facebook is, to an extent, stuck.
The problem is that algorithms play this role in sorting information for us, guiding us to things. Algorithms are essentially picking winners and losers in markets, in news, in culture — and, in effect, in democracy. Because they’re so invisible, we don’t really apply skepticism to them. There’s no real countervailing force working against them, which means algorithms become a source of enormous power for these corporations.
That’s just something we have to worry about.
Sadly, I feel like we’ve stumbled into this world where those things have been devalued. Starting over again, yes, I would love it if we had subscriptions, but subscriptions only matter if organizations have a strong sense of who they are. One of the tolls of the platforms has been to sap us of that sort of identity.