At Industry Conference, Publishers Vent About Power of Social Media Companies

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'This is about the survival of quality journalism in the future,' said Michael Kuntz, Gannett senior VP-digital revenue, at a conference this week.
'This is about the survival of quality journalism in the future,' said Michael Kuntz, Gannett senior VP-digital revenue, at a conference this week. Credit: iStock
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The angst was palpable at Digital Media Strategies 2016, an annual industry conference held on Wednesday and Thursday at a hotel in Times Square.

While there are myriad challenges facing the media companies of today, combatting the power and market share of the social media giants -- often called "the platforms," with an increasingly ominous tone -- seems to be top-of-mind, and came up repeatedly throughout the conference.

"The damage that the platforms ... can do to journalism and to news is pretty profound," said M. Scott Havens, Bloomberg Media's global head of digital, who spoke Wednesday.

He attributed altruistic motives to companies like Facebook and Snapchat, which have linked up with media companies to host their content and share some of the advertising revenue from it. "I think the platforms are trying to help us," he said. "I really do."

But, Mr. Havens told the media and advertising executives in attendance, "We're not their focus. ... They're going to make decisions that are best for them. Period." (Bloomberg Media, he said, has abstained from Facebook's Instant Articles and Snapchat.)

Not every publisher in attendance expressed dissatisfaction with the state of publisher-platform relations. Business Insider President Julie Hansen wowed the crowd with slides showing the massive reach of videos the company's Insider brand has produced on Facebook, on topics like rainbow bagels and melted cheese.

"The power of this distribution channel is really mind-boggling," she said.

But the skepticism was more common. Michael Kuntz, Gannett senior VP-digital revenue, said 2016 has been "a huge, huge wake up call" for publishers, and that content producers need to push back on what many in the industry see as a lack of data transparency and a lackluster revenue split for partnership programs like Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover.

"The reality is: they don't give us clear answers," he said of the platforms. "And quite frankly it's getting old. It's been a year and nothing has changed."

Mr. Kuntz called for publishers to decide as an industry whether to either accept the status quo or "to demand some sort of opportunity of revenue."

"This is about the survival of quality journalism in the future," he added, "which if they don't realize it, they need to wake up, because it affects us all."

Christian Baesler, president of Bauer Xcel Media U.S., said his company experimented with Instant Articles but realized that "the increase in engagement wasn't worth the offset in data and monetization."

The right-leaning digital politics site Independent Journal Review had the same experience. "The revenue per visit was off what we would get from our own site," CEO Alex Skatell said.

As for how publishers should counter the power of the platforms, Mr. Havens said he doesn't expect U.S.-based publishers to follow the lead of their European counterparts and take action against companies like Google, as Axel Springer has done. "I don't think that serves us well," he said.

"I'm a capitalist," he added. "I'm a free-market guy."

Mr. Baesler sounded something of a defeatist note, citing the data advantages enjoyed by companies like Facebook, which have troves of information on the habits and preferences of users that can be used in the service of targeted advertising.

"There isn't much we can do as publishers to fight against it," he said.