Robert Thomson: Google and Facebook Must Recognise Value of Premium Content

News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson has said that Google and Facebook must learn to recognise the relative value of premium content such as high quality journalism produced by news media publishers.  

Delivering the opening remarks at London Tech Week yesterday, he said distribution companies such as Facebook and Google had created a “flat earth ethos” in which qualitative distinctions were diminished and “the incentive to fabricate the fake rises exponentially.”

Speaking about fake news, Mr Thomson said: “The fake has been real for thousands of years, but the flawed underpinning of the contemporary internet, the stress on quantity, that is links and clicks, has naturally meant that the fake has proliferated, more for commercial than political reasons, but with social consequences. 

“There is a hierarchy of content – some news stories are more meaningful than others, some are better sourced than others – but in a horizontal world, the flat earth ethos of distribution companies, qualitative distinctions are diminished and the incentive to fabricate the fake rises exponentially.  That will not change until Facebook, who are confronting the issue, and Google, who are not, recognise the relative value of premium content. 

“In fact, Google literally punishes the premium…First Click Free is a prison sentence for premium sites – the first click may be free, but the second click is fatal.  Instead of giving readers a choice and a chance to access premium content, Google banishes that content from search results.

“And so, at The Wall Street Journal – by any and all standards a high quality newspaper, one which invests many, many millions of dollars in international coverage, coverage that is clearly important at a time of alienation in nations – The Wall Street Journal has been punished by Google.

“Earlier this year, the Journal limited access to First Click Free and, by May, there was a 94 per cent – that is 94 percent – plunge in referrals from Google News.  Naturally, we are providing that statistic, the 94 percent fall, that evidence, to the European Commission, which is rightly investigating Google’s blatant abuse of its search monopoly.”

Mr Thomson took aim at Google for failing to identify inappropriate content, saying: “There is the enduring contradiction between the claimed sophistication of, say, Google’s ability to target audiences and track tastes for advertisers, and its inability to identify the tasteless, the terroristic, the perverted and the pirated. As the over-alliterative title to this short address suggests, it is profit before provenance and probity. And for journalists, it is penury.”

He said that News Corp were involved in an advanced discussion with Facebook about the creation of a subscription mechanic that would benefit news organisations and journalists “perhaps generating enough revenue for the industry so that journalists do not become a modern mendicant order.”

He spoke about search and the European Commission’s antitrust investigations, going on to add: “There is certainly a problem with trust in the digital world.  But in this age, utterly dominated by content distributors – the duopoly – at the expense of content creators – news organizations like ours – it is fair to say that the World Wide Web has not evolved in the manner that most civilised individuals had hoped, say, 15 years ago.  The distortions of distribution have contributed to polarization. 

“The obvious e-enlightenment – whether connecting with old friends or checking symptoms online (sometimes to the annoyance of our doctors) – those extraordinary moments of individual insight have been overshadowed by darker trends….trends entirely avoidable if the digital distributors were socially responsible

“For example, being diligent about blocking extremist content, whether neo-fascist or Islamist – sometimes one in the same – and not allowing those sites to generate revenue from advertising, to the understandable frustration of advertisers.  And how about cherishing provenance to ensure that the flow of high quality content is not diminished, but enhanced?

“The latter problem is writ large in smallish type with the Google snippet….the elevation of the prosaic to the pedestal of profundity. It is a technique that speaks to a more sinister problem, censorship.  The California consensus, the Silicon Valley sensibility, determines which sites receive more or less prominence, regardless of your political persuasion.  The subjectivity of a supposedly objective platform should be of concern.”