Reading List for “Breaking the News”

A carefully crafted reading list, thanks to OMI staff and “Breaking the News” participants.

June 11, 2018  |  by Open Markets

In addition to the following reading list, you can read the Open Markets Institute’s discussion paper on the history of American anti-monopoly media policy here

The New Gatekeepers: Journalism in the age of Platform Monopoly

The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism
Emily Bell & Taylor Owen, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

The influence of social media platforms and technology companies is having a greater effect on American journalism than even the shift from print to digital. There is a rapid takeover of traditional publishers’ roles by companies including Facebook, Snapchat, Google, and Twitter that shows no sign of slowing, and which raises serious questions over how the costs of journalism will be supported. These companies have evolved beyond their role as distribution channels, and now control what audiences see and who gets paid for their attention, and even what format and type of journalism flourishes.

Who Owns the Internet?
Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker

As in the eighteen-seventies, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that has altered the flow of information. Now, as then, just a few companies have taken control, and this concentration of power—which Americans have acquiesced to without ever really intending to, simply by clicking away—is subverting our democracy.

The platform patrons: How Facebook and Google became two of the biggest funders of journalism in the world
Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review

Taken together, Facebook and Google have now committed more than half a billion dollars to various journalistic programs and media partnerships over the past three years, not including the money spent internally on developing media-focused products like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s competing AMP mobile project. The result: These mega-platforms are now two of the largest funders of journalism in the world. The irony is hard to miss. The dismantling of the traditional advertising model—largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue—has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.

A Serf on Google’s Farm
Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo

The adserving (Doubleclick) is like the road. (Adexchange) is the biggest car on the road. But only AdExchange gets full visibility into what’s available. (There’s lot of details here and argument about just what Google does and doesn’t know. But trust me on this. They keep the key information to themselves. This isn’t a suspicion. It’s the model.) So Google owns the road and gets first look at what’s on the road. Not only does Google own the road and makes the rules for the road, it has special privileges on the road. One of the ways it has special privileges is that it has all the data it gets from search, Google Analytics and Gmail. It also gets to make the first bid on every bit of inventory. Of course that’s critical. First dibs with more information than anyone else has access to. (Some exceptions to this. But that’s the big picture.) It’s good to be the king. It’s good to be a Google.

Propaganda, Misinformation, Loss of Privacy

Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses
Siva Vaidhyanathan, The New York Times

The audacity of a hostile foreign power trying to influence American voters rightly troubles us. But it should trouble us more that Facebook makes such manipulation so easy, and renders political ads exempt from the basic accountability and transparency that healthy democracy demands.

How Facebook Figures out Everyone You’ve Ever Met
Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo

That accumulation of contact data from hundreds of people means that Facebook probably knows every address you’ve ever lived at, every email address you’ve ever used, every landline and cell phone number you’ve ever been associated with, all of your nicknames, any social network profiles associated with you, all your former instant message accounts, and anything else someone might have added about you to their phone book.

Youtube, The Great Radicalizer
Zeynep Tufekci, The New York Times

It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century. This is not because a cabal of YouTube engineers is plotting to drive the world off a cliff. A more likely explanation has to do with the nexus of artificial intelligence and Google’s business model. (YouTube is owned by Google.) For all its lofty rhetoric, Google is an advertising broker, selling our attention to companies that will pay for it. The longer people stay on YouTube, the more money Google makes.

How Silicon Valley’s Monopolies Abet Conservative Propaganda
Sarah Jones, The New Republic

It’s unlikely that these ads tipped the election in Trump’s favor. But they are still instructive: Like all good propaganda, they tap into existing prejudices and polarizations, spreading fact-free messages that both scapegoat marginalized communities and amplify the fear factor. They also underscore how these messages are being delivered. In an era that has seen the emergence of comprehensive, right-wing propaganda campaigns, two tech companies—Facebook and Google—have started to monopolize how we consume information. And both entities have become useful megaphones for propagandists.

When the Content Police Came for the Babylon Bee
Adam Ford, The American Conservative

Our new reality of omnipresent phones, mandatory social media, Google and Facebook dominance, and shady surveillance capitalism has introduced a host of serious and far-reaching concerns. I believe the most pressing and grave danger is the centralized control of information by a handful of far-left tech moguls. … Facebook struck again. This time, its left-leaning “fact checker” friend, Snopes, decided to judge an absurd, over-the-top, nonsensical, satirical story of ours about CNN putting news in a washing machine to “spin” it before publication as FAKE NEWS. Facebook took that big red judgment and used it to redirect our readers to Snopes’ page saying that we were intentionally spreading false information. Think of it! The story was so obviously satire—you can’t put news in a dang washing machine!—but the Snopes police arrested us, and the Facebook judge informed me that if it happened again our very popular page would be snuffed out and demonetized.

Facebook Gave Device Makers Deep Access to Data on Users and Friends
Gabriel J.X. Dance, Nicholas Confessore & Michael LaForgia, The New York Times

Facebook has reached data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers — including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung — over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones, company officials said. … Facebook allowed the device companies access to the data of users’ friends without their explicit consent, even after declaring that it would no longer share such information with outsiders. Some device makers could retrieve personal information even from users’ friends who believed they had barred any sharing, The New York Times found.

A Guide to the Digital Advertising Industry That’s Watching Your Every Click
Joseph Turow, The Atlantic

Websites, advertisers, and a panoply of other companies are continuously assessing the activities, intentions, and backgrounds of virtually everyone online; even our social relationships and comments are being carefully and continuously analyzed. In broader and broader ways, computer- generated conclusions about who we are affect the media content-the streams of commercial messages, discount offers, information, news, and enter- tainment-each of us confronts. Over the next few decades the business logic that drives these tailored activities will transform the ways we see ourselves, those around us, and the world at large. Governments too may be able to use marketers’ technology and data to influence what we see and hear.

Fake News is a Real Antitrust Problem
Sally Hubbard, Competition Policy International

First, Facebook and Google compete against legitimate news publishers for user attention, data and advertising dollars. The tech platforms’ business incentives run counter to the interests of legitimate news publishers, and the platforms pull technological levers that harm publishers’ business models and advantage their own. Such levers keep users within Facebook’s and Google’s digital walls and reduce traffic to news publishers’ properties, depriving publishers of the revenue essential to fund legitimate journalism and to counter fake news. Second, Facebook and Google lack meaningful competition in their primary spheres of social media and online search, respectively. As a result, their algorithms have an outsized impact on the flow of information, and fake news purveyors can deceive hundreds of millions of users simply by gaming a single algorithm.

On Google, a Political Mystery That’s All Numbers
Julia Angwin, The Wall Street Journal

Google Inc.’s quest to guess what we want before we want it has produced an unusual side effect: a disparity in the results the company presents about the presidential candidates. … The findings are among the latest examples of how mathematical formulas, rather than human judgments, influence more of the information that people encounter online. As companies find it increasingly affordable to gather and analyze information about human behavior, they are starting to make educated guesses about what ads, products and news individuals might want, but don’t necessarily ask to see. In the hands of a human, decisions like these might be viewed as biased. For a Google algorithm, they are simply a matter of numbers.

The Decline of Local and Special Interest News

New York Times top editor on journalism’s ‘biggest crisis’
Jackie Wattles, CNN

The top editor at the New York Times says President Donald Trump’s attacks on journalism are “out of control.” But he’s more concerned about the slow death of local news. … “This is a major city, Denver. This is a newsroom that now is on the verge of having fewer than 100 journalists,” Baquet said. “That is unbelievable. That means things won’t be covered, school boards aren’t being covered. This is a crisis in American journalism.”

The Hard Truth at Newspapers Across America: Hedge Funds Are in Charge
Gerry Smith, Bloomberg

Several hedge funds have become newspaper barons in recent years. Alden Global now owns about 60 daily newspapers through a subsidiary, Digital First Media. New Media Investment Group, which is managed and controlled by private-equity firm Fortress, owns almost 150 newspapers in smaller towns like Columbus, Ohio, and Providence, Rhode Island, through a unit, GateHouse Media. And hedge fund Chatham Asset Management LLC is one of the largest shareholders and bondholders in McClatchy Co., publisher of the Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. … The evolving ownership picture has sparked fresh questions over whether investment firms can really help save local newspapers by making them profitable again — or if they’ll starve them to the point that they collapse instead.

What’s behind the recent media bloodbath? The dominance of Google and Facebook
Daniel Funke, Poynter

So, what’s behind all the [layoffs and job cuts] ? For the most part, the continued financial success of Silicon Valley titans Google and Facebook, whose dominance of the advertising sector has left publishers fighting over scraps. “There is a clear correlation between layoffs and buyouts with the growth in market share for the duopoly — Google and Facebook,” said Jason Kint, CEO of the trade organization Digital Content Next, in an email to Poynter.

America’s growing news deserts
Yemile Bucay, Vittoria Elliott, Jennie Kamin & Andrea Park, Columbia Journalism Review

As local newspapers have closed across the country, more and more communities are left with no daily local news outlet at all.

The Effects of the Decline of Local and Special Interest News

The game of concentration: The Internet is pushing the American news business to New York and the coasts
Joshua Benton, Nieman Lab,

Rather than disperse the news business around the country, the Internet has concentrated it more firmly than ever in New York and a few other major cities. And that has real impacts on the kind of news we get. … Among digital media and startup jobs, nearly 4 in 10 — 38.9 percent — were located in New York, D.C., or their suburbs. When The Washington Post looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics data last year, it found that the share of American reporting jobs that were in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles went from 1 in 8 in 2004 to 1 in 5 in 2014.

Grenfell reflects the accountability vacuum left by crumbling local press
Emily Bell, The Guardian

The decline of in-depth reporting about London’s richest borough is a microcosm of what has happened to local journalism in the UK and beyond – the pattern is the same from Kensington to Kentucky. A few minutes on Google will give you a snapshot of how local media has become a hollowed-out, commercial shell for an important civic function. … The evisceration of any sustainable professional journalism at the local level creates both an accountability vacuum and a distance between media and the communities it reports on.

George Osborne’s London Evening Standard sells its editorial independence to Uber, Google and others – for £3 million
James Cusick, Open Democracy UK
London’s Evening Standard newspaper, edited by the former chancellor George Osborne, has agreed a £3 million deal with six leading commercial companies, including Google and Uber, promising them “money-can’t-buy” positive news and “favourable” comment coverage, openDemocracy can reveal. … It effectively sweeps away the conventional ethical divide between news and advertising inside the Standard – and is set to include “favourable” news coverage of the firms involved, with readers unable to differentiate between “news” that is paid-for and other commercially-branded content.

What a hurricane tells us about local news
Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post

The weakness of local news means that important decisions, whether on zoning or school boards, are made in a vacuum. The absence of local debate is, in turn, one of the factors that contribute to Americans’ sense of disconnection from politics, for their mistrust of one another, even for their alarming, well-documented declining faith in democracy. Which isn’t really surprising: If you read and hear only grand national narratives about things that don’t really affect you, and if you think “Congress” is a n institution that sits in Washington rather than a body with local roots, then why would you feel responsible for it?

The Hidden Costs of Losing Your City’s Newspaper
Kriston Capps, CityLab

Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals, say researchers who tracked the decline of local news outlets between 1996 and 2015. Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper—a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line.

When towns lose their newspapers, disease detectives are left flying blind
Helen Branswell, STAT News

Epidemiologists rely on all kinds of data to detect the spread of disease, including reports from local and state agencies and social media. But local newspapers are critical to identifying outbreaks and forecasting their trajectories. … “We rely very heavily on local news. And I think what this will probably mean is that there are going to be pockets of the U.S. where we’re just not going to have a particularly good signal anymore,” said Majumder, a Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Private and Public Pathways to Independent and Diverse Journalism in the 21st Century

Tackling the Internet’s Central Villain: The Advertising Business
Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times

The force to blame has been quietly shaping the contours of life online since just about the beginning of life online: It’s the advertising business, stupid. And if you want to fix much of what ails the internet right now, the ad business would be the perfect perp to handcuff and restrain — and perhaps even reform.

News Corp chief urges governments to review tech algorithms
Tim Bradshaw and Peter Wells, Financial Times

Robert Thomson takes aim at Silicon Valley over data collection and transparency…“The sheer amount of personal data collected by Facebook, Google and Amazon means that governments are rightly considering the establishment of an algorithm review board, which, if properly conceived, would provide the necessary transparency for individuals, clients and competitors concerned about algorithmic abuse,” Mr. Thomson said.

Google Emerges as Early Winner From Europe’s New Data Privacy Law
Nick Kostov and Sam Schechner, The Wall Street Journal

GDPR, the European Union’s new privacy law, is drawing advertising money toward Google’s online-ad services and away from competitors that are straining to show they’re complying with the sweeping regulation. The reason: the Alphabet Inc. GOOGL -0.35% ad giant is gathering individuals’ consent for targeted advertising at far higher rates than many competing online-ad services, early data show. That means the new law, the General Data Protection Regulation, is reinforcing—at least initially—the strength of the biggest online-ad players, led by Google and Facebook Inc.

Can Facebook Be Cut Down to Size?
Editorial Board, The New York Times

When the government broke up the telephone system in 1984, the fact that AT&T could count most citizens as customers and that it was arguably the best-run telephone company in the world was not deemed compelling enough to preserve its monopoly power. The breakup would unleash a wave of competition and innovation that ultimately benefited consumers and the economy. Facebook seems to be in a similar position today — only with far greater global reach than Ma Bell could have imagined.

Google braced for Brussels penalty over abuse of market dominance
Rochelle Toplensky, Financial Times

Brussels is preparing to hit Google next month for abusing its dominance through the Android mobile operating system, concluding the most important of a trio of EU antitrust investigations into the company. … The Android case takes aim at a core part of Google’s strategy over the past decade: using its mobile operating system as a platform to push smartphone adoption of its search engine and smartphone app store.

Al Franken Just Gave the Speech Big Tech has Been Dreading
Nitasha Tiku, Wired

Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) delivered some of the sharpest criticism yet about the dangers of tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon during a speech on Wednesday, encouraging regulators, as well as lawmakers in both parties, to better police the market power of dominant online platforms. … “As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here,” Franken said. “No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t.”

Facebook must be restructured. The FTC should take these nine steps now
Barry Lynn & Matt Stoller, The Guardian

Rather than simply carve away some of Facebook’s huge profits, the FTC should immediately move to restructure the corporation to ensure this now essential medium of communication really serves the political and economic interests of American citizens in the 21st century. What makes Facebook’s apparent mishandling of data so deeply dangerous is the corporation’s power and reach over both the distribution and generation of news and information.

Discriminatory Designs on User Data
Olivier Sylvain, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Forthcoming

At a minimum, companies should not get a free pass for enabling unlawful discriminatory conduct, regardless of the social value their services may otherwise provide. I argue here that Section 230 doctrine requires a substantial reworking if the internet is to be the great engine of democratic engagement and creativity that it might be. Section 230 is no longer serving all the purposes it was meant to serve. The statute was intended at least in part to ensure the vitality and diversity, as well as the volume, of speech on new communications platforms. By allowing intermediaries to design their platforms without internalizing the costs of the illegal speech and conduct they facilitate, however, the statute is having the opposite effect.

How the FTC Could Have Prevented the Facebook Mess
Marc Rotenberg, Techonomy

Here comes an understatement: Facebook’s failure to protect user data was well known before the company suspended dealings with Cambridge Analytica last week. What is not well known is that the transfer of 50 million user records to the controversial data mining and political consulting firm could have been avoided if the Federal Trade Commission had done its job. The FTC issued a 2011 consent order against Facebook to protect the privacy of user data. If it had been enforced, there would be no story. Facebook bears responsibility too, because it actively worked to avoid compliance.

Breaking Facebook’s Grip: To renew journalism, we must take back the Internet from monopolies
Victor Pickard, The Nation

But we should also consider a broader, bolder vision that includes what Facebook owes society in return for the incredible power we’ve allowed it to amass—even as we contain and erode that power. It’s time for a new social contract. This contract must assert public control over communications systems. It should protect content creators and individual users (i.e., those who actually provide the labor, attention, and data from which Facebook generates its wealth). But most important, it must privilege society’s needs over Facebook’s primary objective: maximizing profit.

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