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Steve Dempsey: With Facebook friends like these


Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg

Who would want to be one of Mark Zuckerberg's PR handlers? Remember when he said "a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa"? Remember when he said the idea that Russia could influence the election was "crazy"? Remember when he said Holocaust denial wouldn't be censored on Facebook because it might be unintentional?

This week he was shooting himself in the foot again, reportedly telling publishers that did not work with the social media giant: "I'll be holding your hands with your dying business like in a hospice."

That's according to The Australian. The paper also claimed Campbell Brown, who leads Facebook's news partnerships, said Zuckerberg, pictured, doesn't care about publishers and the social network is no longer interested in talking to publishers about the traffic it refers to their websites. Brown said The Australian's story doesn't reflect the discussion. But regardless of the insensitivity or veracity of the comments, what if Zuckerberg's right? What if publishers need to work with Facebook to survive?

Many media executives would scoff at the idea. Facebook can't help publishers get to grips with the investment needed to create great content like investigative journalism? It gets the majority of its content for free. And how will it help publishers handle tricky issues like defamation? After all, it's not a media company as it keeps telling us all.

But before the publishing set get overly supercilious, they should remember what Facebook has achieved in the last 14 years. It owns a suite of sites and apps that have a combined reach of over six billion monthly active users. Not only has it got users hooked, it has got advertisers hooked too. According to Statista, the company now accounts for 20pc of the $203bn global online advertising market. It announced revenue of $13.23bn for the second quarter of 2018. Plus, this money-making machine is mobile. Mobile advertising revenue for Q2 2018 represented 91pc of Facebook's overall ad revenue. Global audiences; digital distribution; buckets of cash; Perhaps publishers should listen to what Facebook has to say after all.

The problem is, Facebook may not really have much to say to media companies. They both share information with their readers and users, but commercially they're very different creatures. One has a business model that requires scarcity of information; the other is a surveillance capitalism machine that needs a constantly growing user base. And one of the reasons news publishers have struggled to succeed online is Facebook. Along with Google it's hoovering up all the advertising revenue.

Facebook gives a poor account of itself in relation to how it deals with publishers. It previously threw money at them to trial services like live video. When faced with any questions about the spread of misinformation and hate speech Facebook's stock response is that it will hire more moderators until it can train the artificial intelligence to do this hard stuff at scale.

Sure, it has a journalism project. But it's pretty flimsy. It claims to work with news organisations around the world to develop products, tools, and training, its list of success stories relating to news are sparse. It's website has seven case studies related to news organisations since 2015.

If it's to thrive in the digital age, the news industry needs to be built on trust. It needs to be run by civic-minded people who understand the responsibility of curating and interpreting what's happening in the world. It needs editors not algorithms. It needs heads a little older and wiser than Mark Zuckerberg.

The late Gerry Lenfest is an interesting case in point. The philanthropist and billionaire may have been a media sugar daddy, but thought outside the box to provide his media titles a sustainable future. In 2014, he won an auction to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. These were media outlets that he partly owned and was originally hoping to sell. But instead of turning a quick buck, he created a non-profit/for-profit hybrid model by giving the titles to a non-profit organisation, the Philadelphia Foundation, which runs the titles as a for-profit 'public-benefit corporation'.

The result is stable ownership and a clear mandate to serve the public good.

One of the most interesting things about Lenfest's largesse is that it was so focused on his hometown of Philadelphia. Perhaps all news, like all politics is local. And this is one more reason that a global entity like Facebook is out of step.

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