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Giving quality a fighting chance

Journalism from reputable media firms often get short shrift on social media platforms

Toronto Star, 21 Oct 2019, TARA DESCHAMPS

INMA would like more uniformity and transparency around how platforms decide what news to elevate.

As part of a series, the Star looks more closely at a new report by the International News Media Association: How to Decode the Publisher-Platform Relationship identifies seven issues as the most concerning to publishers in the digital age. Today, unbiased prominence for quality, locked, subscription content.

Journalism from reputable media companies often ends up buried by platforms, while stories full of unverified information and sometimes fake news are listed higher in news feeds and search results. Stories located beyond paywalls, which frequently generate higher “bounce” rates as readers without a subscription head elsewhere to get their news, also end up with less prominent placement on such platforms.

The Herald Sun, Australia’s largest daily newspaper, for example, fought for five years to lift a court order keeping it from naming a lawyer who represented underworld figures and was a police informant. When it was finally able to reveal the lawyer’s identity in March, it placed the story behind its paywall. The International News Media Association (INMA) says Google only surfaced the story as the top result for 30 minutes before free stories overtook it and the Sun’s piece was relegated to a later page of mobile search results.

Such conditions create monetization troubles for publishers relying on clicks and ads to fund their journalism. Possible solutions: Prioritize quality/safe brands. Digital platforms all prioritize news based on different algorithms and criteria, but INMA would like to see more uniformity and transparency around how platforms decide what news to elevate and ensure the decision to give something greater exposure is free of commercial bias and not based on a subversive agenda.

Recognize original material/redact copycats.

INMA would like to see platforms work harder to promote and ensure original reporting is surfaced higher in search results and given more prominence on news feeds than copycat stories, which don’t advance coverage or attribute news to whoever broke it. INMA sees promise in Google’s recent move to use human “reviewers” to assess the algorithms that promote original material.

Don’t penalize locked subscription content.

Content that requires a login or lives behind a paywall should not be downplayed in search results and news feeds because of the extra steps it takes to gain access, INMA believes. “As long as a publisher is willing to reveal the headline, the first few paragraphs, then a ‘subscribe to read more’ prompt, it should appear in its normal ranking as if it had no subscription filter,” the organization argues. It also says that regardless of how someone subscribes to news, they should be able to notify their platform of choice that they are a subscriber so their content preferences are prioritized. Allow some algorithm transparency. INMA would like to see tech companies publish a consistently updated explainer about how their algorithms rank content based on quality, originality and subscriptions. If the algorithms change, they would like notice of the alterations. Many believe if there is more openness around how the algorithms work, content promoting a broader range of views can be shared. An audit by the Northwestern University School of Communication published a study that revealed a small number of media sources, mostly left-leaning, make up most of Google’s search results.


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