On July 20, 1969, Neal Armstrong walked on the moon. In New York City, where I grew up, it then rained for at least a portion of the next 11 consecutive days.
This, my grandmother said, was the Almighty’s way of telling us that we had taken technology too far. We weren’t meant to travel to outer space, Grandma told us. The rain was our price to pay for allowing technology to control our lives.
It stopped raining. We kept sending astronauts to the moon. Grandma died in 1985, about 20 years before the launch of Facebook and Twitter. And although it hasn’t rained much in California where I now live, I am wondering if Grandma had the right warning on the wrong technology. Further, I wonder how newspapers can find a valued place in a world in which 50 people walk down a street staring at their phones for every single person sitting in a coffee shop with a newspaper. We certainly must find a way to distinguish ourselves from platforms that exist to attract and not to inform.
This is not a column pandering to Luddites. In fact, I have often advocated that we adapt to the technology and social media platforms to spread the credibility of newspapers. But I draw the line when respectable newspaper companies are making deals with Facebook over real time social media tracking and monitoring.
These companies are not our allies, nor are they necessarily good for the democracy as Congressional hearings have shown. In an era in which the president calls the real news “fake news,” why climb into bed with those who don’t care if it’s fake or real?
These are social media companies with sophisticated tracking. Facebook and Twitter have cornered our communications. Google is a source for information. And Amazon has figured out how we shop. Newspapers are news media companies. The difference is that they track and triangulate our every click. That’s what they are in business to do. And there are few ethical boundaries on them.
Facebook and its kin have been exposed for accepting Russian rubles that might have changed the outcome of the 2016 election. Disinterested newspapers dissected the words of those candidates and helped voters decide on candidates based on reporting information critically. Social media sites multiply and amplify stories that are false and potentially dangerous. Newspaper reporters fact check before reporting.
I have nothing against social media sites when it comes to sharing among your friends your vacation photos, your devotion to a sports team, even your selfies. I use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn myself.
It is when newspapers help to legitimize these companies as news aggregators or distributors that I hit the brakes hard. These sites exist only to create content that makes you come back again and again and again. Newspapers are supposed to create audience loyalty, yes, but with a nobler purpose in mind.
Here are six reasons newspaper publishers and editors ought to distance themselves from social media:
- It only works for one side when digital media platforms want to “partner” with newspaper sites. You only need read the history of this magazine between 2000 and 2010 to find a litany of failed partnerships between newspaper companies and Yahoo, Cars.com, Monster.com, etc. They used superior technology to build a relationship with our customers who ended up liking them better.
- Their strength is a cacophony of voices. So many voices shouting all at once. Newspapers’ strength is sifting through the voices, vetting their statements and reporting what makes it past the copy desk.
- They don’t care whether it’s accurate. If it has a tantalizing headline and attention-grabbing photo and is likely to be shared, they’ll allow it to be posted. They just want you back. Newspapers care if the information is correct.
- The studies are just starting to verify this, but is there anyone who believes it is good for an educated society to be constantly distracted by Candy Crush or Snapchat filters that turn people into dogs? Newspapers actually help to inform and educate people.
- Social media stokes shouts of anger written in the moment. A newspaper’s letters to the editor, while not always written at a doctoral level, at least require a minimum of critical thinking.
- Social media platforms care about one thing when accepting advertisements—your ability to pay. (ProPublica tried to buy “Jew-hating” ads on Facebook as a test and no one stopped them.) While not perfect, most newspaper companies would never accept ads that promote hate or violence.
Newspapers are not perfect and we have a lot to figure out. Let’s not add to our problems by getting engaged to social media platforms.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.