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Social media algorithms sink media into poverty

Brodie Fenlon

I have bad news for you, people: mainstream media in Alberta is a trainwreck!

Of course, if you were paying attention, you already knew that.

I have worse news, though: Thanks to the current state of the Internet, the quality of the news you read or watch is not likely to get any better. Indeed, it may be on its way to getting worse. I'll explain why in a minute.

But don't get your hopes up about the online world democratizing communications and media in any meaningful way. Not unless someone with big money is prepared to make a charitable investment in real journalism.

These gloomy thoughts popped into my head while listening to an entertaining but fundamentally depressing talk at the Parkland Institute's annual conference over the weekend by Brodie Fenlon, managing editor of CBCNews.ca, and Gillian Steward, who used to be the managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

Steward, who is nowadays a journalism teacher at Mount Royal University and a columnist for the Toronto Star, was a colleague of mine at the Herald back in the 1970s. She was the managing editor who hired me back in the mid-1980s. I can attest to the fact she knows what she's talking about.

I've never met Fenlon before, but he's obviously a crackerjack new media guy the national network snapped up from the Huffington Post in 2013 to make something of the CBC's online operations. If you've noticed the news lately, it’s pretty obvious that whatever he and his colleagues are doing is working -- the deafening whine from Canada's traditional mainstream media about the CBC's online success is proof enough of that.

Steward told participants at the progressive think tank's seminar on news at the University of Alberta about the need for new sources of funding if real journalism is to continue to be practiced, while Fenlon discussed the "never ending disruption of news" by social media.

First, about that trainwreck: "When I was managing editor, we had 180 people in the Herald's newsroom," Steward remembered. "It was by far the biggest newsroom in the city. The Herald covered everything -- or tried to."

"Now they have 15," she said. Fifteen people, obviously, can't cover all the news in a city nearly twice the size it was when the same newsroom had 180.

The result in Alberta has been what Steward -- quoting Ryerson University journalism professor April Lindgren -- termed "news poverty." And being news poor in this province, where major stories of national significance are unfolding, really is a disgrace and an affront to democracy.

It's worse, though. For one thing, Steward said, wishing for improvement at the Herald under the current owners in the present circumstances "is kind of like wishing Donald Trump would turn into Robert Kennedy Jr." It's just not going to happen.

"Canadian newspapers are in terminal decline," she said. If you think 15 reporters for a city of more than a million is bad, "it won't be long before there are none. Quite frankly, I wish they would just die right now -- then something else would come along."

I'm not that optimistic. The alternatives she suggested -- news co-operatives like the Texas Tribune, foundation-funded operations like Pro Publica, online publications like Vancouver's The Tyee supported by a blend of advertising and donations, or sites like Blendle where you agree to pay a quarter for every story you read -- all cost money to run. I see little evidence of willingness to support such efforts by the people who would benefit from them here in Alberta. Plus, personally, I'd be broke if I depended on the Blendle model for news.

But there's always the anarchic Internet, right, spreading a little creative chaos and online democracy? Not so fast, said Fenlon.

The analytics show a dangerous truth -- mobile smart phones equipped with apps have grown news distribution market share faster than anyone imagined, and "Facebook is the behemoth” that therefore dominates the distribution of news -- real and fake.

Even a big news organization like the CBC must share stories through Facebook if it wants to survive, he explained, and since "Facebook favours 'sharability' over public service," news organizations had better present news the way Facebook demands if they want readers to see it.

That's where the mysterious, top secret algorithm that builds the "filter bubble" you've been hearing about comes in, making the world made smaller and smaller for each of us by selecting stories readers are most likely to open, and hence are likely to agree with.

"Media becomes enslaved to the algorithm," Fenlon said. 'Real news in the feed looks the same as fake news."

Which is why, he argued, Facebook needs to own up to the fact it's a major media company and provide its huge audience with tools "to discern what is news and what is not, what it good and what is not."

Well, good luck with that happening in any meaningful way. It's about as likely to as major funding for a new Alberta news organization falling into our news wilderness from heaven. Plus, of course, all this assumes algorithmically cocooned readers even care if the news they're reading is real or fake.

Meanwhile, you'd also better have video -- not a problem for the CBC maybe, but possibly for the rest of us -- or the algorithm will pass you by.

Well, at least there’s some good news for old copy editors. Snappy headlines are still important, Fenlon said.

Back in the day, we used to complain that freedom of the press only mattered if you owned one. Presses suitable for printing daily newspapers, of course, didn’t come cheap. Accordingly, they served as a powerful barrier to the influence that went with media ownership for anyone but the extremely wealthy.

Now, in the post-National Post era in Canada, mainstream media have have all but slammed their doors shut on progressive views.

The Internet was supposed to fix that, but, of course, it's dominated with large companies with a worldview and a corporate agenda too. It's just that they're different companies -- which is a big part of what’s making old media so cranky.

So now, if you want access to an audience, you have to feed the algorithm -- and, lo and behold, access to social media algorithms amounts to a formidable barrier to readership too, just like the Calgary Herald's press was.

So, in Fenlon’s words, "instead of press barons and broadcast conglomerates, now we're talking about Facebook and Google."

Nothing much has really changed, in other words, even though almost everything has changed. That's depressing.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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