In Silicon Valley startup culture, tech debt results from shortcuts taken over time that lead to broken loops, lack of larger solutions, and daily pain by those entrusted with working on and improving a product. Time and resource constraints lead to shipping imperfect code that, if not addressed over time, ultimately slows down teams and work.
Journalistic debt is the result of tech companies failing to recognize journalistic values while disrupting the industry and fundamentally changing the way people consume information. It’s the reason your feed is overrun with click-bait, why serious or controversial stories lack context, why stories don’t receive proper attribution, and stories with false information gain momentum. This is what we’re facing right now.
One of the risks for the tech industry that values what’s new, who’s hot, and what’s next is a failure to draw on knowledge gained through experience and the people who hold the keys to that knowledge. If a company has the potential to disrupt, then it must understand the industry it could purposefully or accidentally upend. Tech platforms failed to do this with journalism, and we as a society are paying the price.
At their inception, platforms were (and still are) slow to hire journalists—perhaps because they didn’t see the value, perhaps because they didn’t understand their company’s potential, or perhaps because they just didn’t think of it. Journalists are often hired after the product managers, engineers, and designers. The result: products that don’t value the journalism, cause disruptions without solutions, and lead to years of paying off journalistic debt (h/t to Blavity co-founder Jonathan Jackson for introducing me to the phrase).
I lead the editorial and publisher teams at Flipboard, a content discovery platform with over 145 million monthly active users. I was fortunate to join a company that valued publishers and journalistic principles, and felt tremendous responsibility as a delivery source for the world’s stories. It’s because I’ve been part of a team that navigates the divides between technology and journalism daily that I know why it’s essential for journalists to have a seat at the table—if not at the head of the table, then awfully close to the front.
Failing to recognize this as essential at the inception of a company impacts every decision. And I don’t think that reality is fully understood. I fear editors and journalists are still viewed as “nice to have” or minds to consult only before a launch. This impacts which sources are surfaced, how content is rendered, in what environment it appears, what’s adjacent to it, how push notifications are crafted, the dissemination of email campaigns, how retractions are treated, and most gravely, the spread of misinformation.
A false and disturbing story about Hillary Clinton surfaced on Facebook around the 2016 election from the Denver Guardian, a publication that does not exist. Since then a slew of false stories have been tracked on the platform, mostly from domains masquerading as legitimate outlets that have reported deaths of major figures, arrests, and resignations that never took place, among other “news.”
Journalistic debt can hit smaller outlets hardest. A story about a local murder recently published in the Traverse City Record Eagle was subsequently rewritten by a national outlet and a local TV station. Only the latter versions initially appeared in Google News, with no mention of the original source.
Flipboard isn’t exempt from these challenges, though we do our best to uphold our standards. We don’t always prominently feature the source that broke a story; we don’t always label an opinion piece as such; and sometimes our sources aren’t clearly identified. These examples chip away at our concept of truth and objectivity. These examples should be—and are—preventable.
Many of the biggest companies have attempted to correct for this by hiring journalists retroactively—think Katie Couric at Yahoo!, Campbell Brown at Facebook, or Peter Hamby at Snapchat. But are these hires valued internally, and can you ever really correct for journalistic debt? Can you infuse values into an organization after its principles are well established? And if you can, will it ever correct for the failures of the past?
The adage used to be that “content is king.” This has been challenged in favor of connection and community. In his book “The Content Trap,” Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand argues: “It’s striking how many digital media managers still think in terms of product appeal to individual customers rather than in terms of managing and exploiting connections. This is even more surprising in view of the fact that that media consumption has always been inherently social.”
“Social” is no doubt key to success, but without quality content, without great storytelling—even without mediocre storytelling—platforms are diminished. Quality content is part of their currency, their value, their social engine, and crucial to their retention mechanisms. When tech companies fail to recognize this, and forget that it’s a privilege to surface the journalism produced by others, they lose, their audiences lose, and journalism loses.
If you accept this industry-wide failure, it’s easy to understand why trust in platforms is down and trust in traditional news outlets and local news is up. Edelman’s Trust Barometer report released in January showed people are turning toward traditional news media, a marked shift from last year. Consumption of traditional news weekly or more increased by 8 percentage points, from 24 percent to 32 percent, and the number of people who said they consume traditional news less than weekly dropped over 20 percentage points, from 49 percent to 28 percent according to the survey. Axios’ Sara Fischer summed it up this way: “Consumers are turning to traditional media to fact-check reports and claims amid a chaotic and confusing news environment.”
But the report also showed that Americans, 73 percent of them, fear false information or fake news, and a recent Pew survey showed Americans still feel the media doesn’t understand them.
Platforms can be part of the solution to these challenges—if they embrace and value journalism and the minds behind that journalism. I’m not sure if journalistic debt can ever truly be corrected for, but we can crack away at it bit by bit, hire by hire, journalistic standard by journalistic standard. That is the path toward increasing trust in platforms and a key part of building sustainable business models to power great journalism.