John McLellan: How can we shape the future of digital news?

Johnston Press chief Ashley Highfield said an 'imbalance' needs to be corrected to ensure a sustainable future for journalism. Picture: Malcolm Irving
Johnston Press chief Ashley Highfield said an 'imbalance' needs to be corrected to ensure a sustainable future for journalism. Picture: Malcolm Irving
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News powers half of the social media traffic yet gets half of sod all of revenue. Not my words, but couthy analysis on Twitter by Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield about the dominance of Google and Facebook in UK advertising markets.

Highfield was reacting to new research, conducted for the News Media Association which he currently chairs, showing that 47 per cent of all engagement with UK websites on social media was driven by content from commercial news brands.

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More officially, he commented: “News media publishers are not currently appropriately rewarded for their investment in news and that imbalance must be rectified if the journalism which consumers and social media giants rely on is to have a sustainable future.”

And on Thursday, Lord Black of Brentwood told the House of Lords that “the digital revolution has destroyed the business model which sustains the news publishing industry as advertising has shifted online, and for many in the business it is a race against time to adapt and to find new revenues”.

Both Highfield and Black raised the issue of the key role of established news brands in challenging “fake news” on social media, but as news industry figureheads neither would claim to be totally disinterested.

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Not so Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, who wrote in March: “Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us.

“And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire.”

And a paper co-written by Ariel Ezrachi, Oxford professor of competition law and Professor Maurice Stucke of Tennessee University, said: “The super-platforms can squeeze millions of sellers, including photographers, photojournalists, writers, journalists and musicians… The super-platforms’ economic power can translate into political power: [they] can shape our political views and the public debate.”

Although they were writing mainly about the US, their conclusion is relevant here: “Competition law has at its origins the protection of society from the misuse of economic and political power. Thus, our competition authorities must step up.”

Here, that’s the Competition & Markets Authority and its involvement in the UK government’s promised Digital Charter is essential.

• John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor

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