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Clippings: Hey you kids, get off my news media landscape

Apparently Facebook wants to tell me what news to follow. Have you been following the controversy over Facebook and how it is secretly feeding us — well, only its users, but with Facebook’s 1.2 billion users that amounts to pretty much all of us — the news stories it wants us to see? According to the Internet, there are people at Facebook who are manipulating what goes into the “Trending” news feed on my Facebook page — and on yours, too — so that we see more “liberal” stories and fewer “conservative” ones.
The brouhaha has exploded — at least it has on the Internet (well, a part of the Internet), but we’re all on the Internet (at least sometimes we visit it via our screens) so essentially it has exploded even if there was not an audible “Bang!” — and a Republican U.S. senator and right-wing TV and Internet news agitators are calling for investigations. It’s the news, after all, and that affects how we all think. In response, Facebook did a thorough one-week investigation and determined that, hey, you know, there were some people at the company who had an anti-conservative bias but they’ve been brought up to speed on Facebook’s policies and really there’s nothing to see here, move along, folks, move along.
In some ways — in A LOT of ways — this is not really a big deal. The Trending newsfeed that is at the heart of this is not the main newsfeed we all follow in the center of our Facebook pages; the ruckus is about the little box on the right side of your Facebook page that features about 10 truncated headlines that are usually completely overlooked by Facebook users who are more consumed with family milestones and pet videos in the main feed. On Tuesday afternoon three headlines in my Trending feed were “Nile crocodile: 3 reptiles captured near Miami,” “Kenneth Wilson: Auction house to sell late scientist’s 1982 award for condensed physics” and “World Turtle Day: May 23 marks annual observance.” Earth-shattering stuff. There were also some headlines around the themes of politics, sports and entertainment, but I had to click on an icon (one I hadn’t ever seen until I decided to write this column) in order to see them.
I’m not terribly worried that Facebook is showing me and my 1.2 billion friends only the news it wants us to see; I’m not convinced that they can make it so compelling that we will use it to the exclusion of other news sources.
However, I do take note of the fact that a social media website has a serious aspiration of being a purveyor of news. And Facebook isn’t the only Internet Age behemoth looking to be the conduit of information that formerly came through old media pipes (like, for instance, community newspapers). Google, of course, offers “personalized news,” which also uses algorithms to show you only the news that interests you … just like Facebook’s Trending newsfeed. Apple News, like Google news, is an aggregator of other news producers’ content; and, like Google, has a “For You” feature that narrows the pipe so that it only spits out stories and videos personalized to your tastes.
What seemed most weird to 51-year-old me was that the social media app Snapchat (launched in September 2011) is also vying to become a channel for news. I don’t use Snapchat, and I think of it only as being that app on a young person’s cell phone that is used to send embarrassing body-part photos that disappear within six seconds. It still is that, but it has become a much bigger communications medium, offering videos from major producers like Comedy Central, a platform for creating and sharing stories about (what else?) you, and even an ability to make real-world payments like a debit card. And, like the others, it is a source for other people’s news content (The Daily Mail and Cosmo offer news) through Snap Discover.
It’s not surprising that old media companies would partner with new media companies. First, Snapchat and the like offer the Holy Grail for media companies: 18-29-year-old consumers. More than 80 percent of Snapchat users are younger than 35, and around 60 percent are younger than 25. How many people is that? The company claimed 100 million daily users last year, so that’s a lot of young and impressionable minds.
Young matters, I get that — advertisers count on the fact that once someone gets in the habit of buying a certain product they often don’t switch. I’ve bought the same brand of toilet paper for 20 years; I don’t want to have to think and weigh options every time I go down the toilet paper aisle.
What sits uneasily with me is that these potential new news conglomerates don’t have the same culture as the old media bastions. When an energetic young reporter, brimming with enthusiasm and little experience or understanding of the world, comes to an old media company, they are guided and nurtured by a crew of experienced journalists. While the old school may be tired and low on new ideas, they have the benefit of perspective and the long view, which, we tell ourselves, gives them judgment about what news is important and what is fluff. It also generally has an explicit goal of helping the community; most journalists are generally public-spirited people. What worries me about people behind the scenes at Facebook and Google and (gasp) Snapchat making news judgments is that they live in a world that is driven by the bottom line.
The old media is filled with gatekeepers — they see what comes across the transom and they decide what the consumer of their newspaper or news program will get to consider. The new media either has gatekeepers that come from a different mindset or it has completely foresworn gatekeepers and it lets people drown in an unfiltered sea of zeroes and ones. We need gatekeepers — you want to pay the gatekeepers to do the thinking for you about what to consume and what not to waste your time on. I don’t know exactly what kinds of mistakes new media organizations will make, but I know that they have a different culture, and I fret about what that could mean to our public conversations in the years ahead.

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