Tackling the digital duopoly: it's time for a status update
A view from Vanessa Clifford

Tackling the digital duopoly: it's time for a status update

Facebook and Google are secret and monotlithic. We shouldn't put up with it anymore, says the interim chief executive of Newsworks.

Why is it that on the rare occasions when someone from the world of established media questions the digital duopoly, they get shot down?

Stick your head above the parapet on an issue such as what the Facebook recent video views debacle means for our industry as a whole and prepare for some mudslinging. Well bring it on. 

Now I’m not about to rehash all the ins and outs of the Facebook controversy but it seems to me that no-one should be immune to criticism. Trust me, we should know, we get more than our fair share. 

Here’s an example for you. In the wake of Facebook’s announcement, a former colleague of mine Simon Andrews wrote on his ‘Mobile Fix’ blog: "The traditional media Taliban seize on these stories as more proof that the new digital opportunities are not what they seem".

I hope Simon doesn’t mind us picking on him here - and it’s true that we had plenty other material from other sources we could have chosen. But Simon, who now has a specialist mobile agency, has quite a following and a way with words. This Taliban, he explains, is "ever hopeful of taking us all back to the good old days before this new-fangled stuff came along and complicated things".

This is about the news industry and the commercial television industry, of course. Does anyone in the marketplace really believe that newspaper publishers or TV companies consider Facebook "new-fangled stuff?" Really? In 2016?

This is a tired old narrative, and surely the truth is that outdated attitudes work to the detriment of us all. It might blow a few millennials’ minds to realise that publishers have been agonising about digital strategy since well before Facebook was even launched.  

There was a time, of course, when Google and Facebook were untouchable, the future. Or at least there was a general feeling that they were inventing a future that might benefit us all. And how the digital behemoths must yearn for the days when they seemed infallible.

The always-readable Dominic Mills at Mediatel gives a fine description of Facebook’s recent "non-apology of an apology,", and the issues it raises, here.

An example closer to home was a few weeks back when the News Media Association met with Government ministers to voice their concerns about the ways in which Google and Facebook might be abusing their dominant position when it comes to the distribution of news content in search and social media. Google’s response was to remind us that it had set up a programme to educate news providers about the ways they might think about "boosting traffic" and "increasing monetisation".

Well, thanks guys. Presumably, if we could only get a little bit more Google rocket science into our pretty little heads, all would be sweetness and light in our poor benighted world.

But of course hardly anyone in the marketplace finds Facebook’s or Google’s corporate culture odd or unpleasant or patronising or just plain regressive. Quite the opposite. It’s still possible to find countless apologists and cheerleaders out there.

The thing is, there’s trust at stake here. These days we’re all essentially in the same business – and bad practice has implications for us all. When you defend the indefensible or can barely apologise when you’re just plain wrong, you invite anger – and worse, ridicule.

If, on the rare occasions when we object to questionable behaviour in the digital marketplace, were we motivated by a desire to defend print revenues, then you’d have every reason to patronise us. But that’s not what we’re saying; there’s more at stake – not least the future of quality journalism. Newsworks also exists in part to ensure that our stakeholders’ achievements in online and mobile are rewarded. We’re merely asking for equitable status.

Let’s not forget that the news industry has done more to stimulate debate on a whole range of digital advertising issues - audience measurement, effectiveness, accountability, engagement, creative formats – than most platforms trading on future-facing credentials.

And while we’re at it, let’s also acknowledge that the mindset of newspaper companies has evolved far more rapidly over the last decade than the corporate cultures at either Google or Facebook. We’re open to new ideas and we debate the issues freely and enthusiastically. We’re unapologetic in our desire to deliver the very best for advertisers.

Newspaper publishers are motivated by a desire to see an integrated ecosystem where everyone is able to trade freely and openly, where independently verified audience measurement is the norm, where everyone is able to reap deserved financial rewards for their ability to attract audiences.

In contrast, the likes of Facebook and Google are secretive, monolithic and arrogant. 

Way back in the mists of digital history, there was a time when people celebrated its Wild West nature. The odd bit of impropriety, they suggested, was the price everyone had to pay for progress. Well, that’s just not good enough any more.

We at Newsworks humbly suggest it’s time for the industry as a whole, Google and Facebook fan club included, to put those dark old days behind us.

Vanessa Clifford is the interim chief executive of Newsworks.