Disappearing journalism jobs were among the many ills laid at the feet of top tech execs Wednesday as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) at an antitrust hearing lamented the decline of local news and recalled a massive mess up by Facebook five years ago that accelerated the contraction in the business.
“These publishers produce valuable content. It is increasingly Google and Facebook that profit off their content. Publishers have told us that Google and Facebook maintain their dominance in this market in part through anti-competitive conduct as well as well as conflict of interest,” Nadler said at a subcommittee hearing with the CEOs of Faceebook, Google parent Alphabet, Apple and Amazon – taking aim at the first two.
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“In 2015, Facebook reported high and quickly growing rates of video viewership on its platform. Based on these metrics, publishers fired hundreds of journalists choosing instead to boost their video divisions. In 2018, it was discovered that Facebook had inflated these metrics, but had known about the inaccuracies several years before,” he said, asking Mark Zuckerberg, “Did you know these metrics were inflated before they were publicly released?”
“No, I did not and we regret that mistake and we have put in place measures since that time,” said Zuckerberg.
“Do you realize the harm that this caused journalists throughout the country?”
“Congressman, I certainly know how important it is that the metrics we report are accurate and we put in place measures to make sure we can audit those” said Zuckerberg.
Nadler was referring to Facebook’s vastly overstating the success of videos posted to its social network, altering the advertising landscape and pushing media outlets to pivot to video and, in the process, lay off other kinds of journalists. But Facebook had exaggerated time spent watching videos by as much as 900%, according to a class action lawsuit by advertisers. The suit, citing thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents, alleged it was aware of the issue for at least a year. Facebook said then, as Zuckerberg did Wednesday, that it did not knowingly inflate metrics. It agreed to a $40 million settlement in late 2019.
The financial crunch in journalism was underway well before this as readers switched from print to video. Online advertising pays less — Facebook and Google siphone off most of it. So the fact that the tech giants remain reluctant to pay for news continues to be a live issue.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, overall newsroom employment dropped by 23% between 2008 and 2019. The coronavirus pandemic, which slashed advertising even as news consumption surged, accelerated layoffs at media outlets. The New York Times estimated in April that 36,000 media workers were laid off, furloughed or had their pay cuts since COVID hit.
Outside the U.S., some regulators are making tech and social media giants pay for news.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is developing a mandatory code of conduct to address what it called a imbalance of power between the country’s news media and Google and Facebook that may force the tech giants to pay for use of news content.
Facebook has said it’s not responsible for propping up the news industry. It changed its News Feed ranking algorithm to prioritize content from friends and family, reducing audience exposure to public content, including news.
Google closed its news service in Spain in 2014 after legislation was introduced requiring it to pay publishers. French regulators have ordered Google to work out a way to compensate news outlets when their stories appear on its news tab or search results.
Canada’s Heritage Minister, Steven Guillbeualt, said recently that “those who benefit from the media content of our news and information agencies in Canada should be paying their fair share” and that the Canadian government is exploring actions to those taken in France and Australia.
Nadler focused on the video debacle, pivoting to Google to ask about curation and date gathering to target users, asking Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai if it tracks people’s browsing history and refines its algorithms based on “what news typically appears in a user’s search results.”
Pichai said Google uses data, as many companies do, to “improve products and services,” as well as to target ads, but gives consumers a clearly marked choice.