Last week a Silicon Valley billionaire asked me a question. Not, unfortunately, “what are your bank details?”, but something rather more testing: “Name one way in which journalism companies are not the same as software companies.”
I could have launched into a long list starting with “at journalism companies, generally the people who write the code are not in charge, which explains a lot”, running through “there are more opinionated women in news companies – or actually more women, or some women”, and ending with “at journalism companies no one can afford a Tesla, or, indeed, to take an Uber”.
What I actually said was “at news organisations the central organising principle is usually to produce something with social impact first ahead of utility or profit”. That’s not to say that news organisations always execute particularly well on that promise or that the cultural impact is always beneficial. But the fact is that doing the job well usually means that journalists end up being ostracised or imprisoned rather than ringing the opening bell at the New York stock exchange.
The said billionaire accepted this explanation, but on reflection I was mildly surprised he needed to be told. The question is a good one, however, as Silicon Valley companies take on more and more functions of the free press. I made this a theme of the Reuters Memorial Lecture on Friday, focusing on what the right relationship is between Silicon Valley companies and journalism. Why does this even matter? Because, almost without noticing it, we have entered a world where the way we see news is dictated not by what’s on the newsstand or even what leads the 6 o’clock news, but what we see on our phones through another filter, increasingly through Facebook.
This critical point of transition in the communications world has arrived at a speed we can barely comprehend. In 2011 research from the Pew Center in the US reported that only 11% of US news consumers on any kind of digital device described themselves as getting their news through “Facebook or Twitter”. In the 2014 report of the same metrics 30% reported getting their news primarily from Facebook alone. That is a very rapid rate of migration in just two years.