Trust must be the next disruption in the news industry

Apr 24, 2024
The news environment isn't broken. Instead, it functions flawlessly for the tech corporations that designed it. It's time to replace it with a system rooted in trust and decentralisation.
notion image
The news industry is experiencing convulsions. This is not new. Since the digitisation process began in the late '90s, what seemed to be an easy ride in a market that was expanding is now much closer to Armageddon. There are several crises occurring simultaneously. Revenue has plummeted everywhere, with three companies now monopolising half of the digital advertisement money. Trust in media has declined to new historical lows, with some demographics as low as 12%. News has been weaponised into disinformation, which has become an industry in itself. Artificial intelligence, the new kid on the block, waves to media warning that it may be as destructive as digitisation, or worse. At the heart of the issue is a framework devised and nurtured by big tech companies: the click economy. For media to avoid extinction, there must be a paradigm shift. Trust, not clicks, must be the cornerstone of this change.
Looking back just over two decades, we can draw parallels between the impact of digital media on the industry then and the emergence of AI now. Then, the news industry, due to a lack of planning, strategy, and misguided incentives, essentially surrendered itself to Google and Meta, leading to its own downfall. Today, all digital media markets are tied to the click (or scroll, or video start or any media consumption process). That’s the only thing that matters.
Other changes have been awful for news media too. With entry barriers reduced to zero, suddenly there are tens of millions of competitors who, unlike professional journalists who follow a specific set of rules determined by professional ethics, will stop at nothing to generate more clicks. This is the breeding ground for disinformation, misinformation, and videos so absurd that they almost deserve admiration for their complex creation process (or lack of). The rationale of this amazingly efficient click-making machine and its incentives led to the obliteration of privacy, an unimaginable concentration of revenue, polarisation, and data hijacking so extensive that a considerable part of the audience prefers to read falsehoods that confirm their biases over solid information. Welcome to the post-truth world, a system that benefits from instability, lack of transparency, privacy, and massive inequality.
Business Models are not the problem: it’s deeper than that
It is often said that a flawed business model is at the root of the news sector's problems, but that's not the case. This is one of the most perfect business models ever, operating like a Ferrari engine, smoothly and with very little friction. The only issue is that it's a model for technology companies, not media. It resembles the traditional media model, but this resemblance is an illusion cast by the sales, marketing, and public relations departments of Mountain View and Palo Alto over media companies that are now surviving on leftovers. If we realize that the tech award-winning teams have managed to convince everyone that the data anyone produces on their platform belongs to them, as do all the profits generated, but if something goes wrong, they cannot be held liable, it becomes clear how naked the king is.
To change this situation, it's insufficient to simply believe that the ecosystem will eventually function. The news industry is a prime example of market failure. Companies that foster frustration, hate, and ignorance are often more rewarded than those that provide proper information. Regulation could restore some balance, but it would be limited to societies with the leverage to understand the problem and compel governments to enact laws, such as a tax on the tech ad revenue lost by news media. The rise of artificial intelligence presents a good opportunity to push for regulation, as laws establishing norms for this new market are inevitable. However, for the news industry, this will be a fix, not a solution. What we need is to replace the click - the fundamental unit of this system - its mindset, business models, and logic with something else, and assertively declare that the current framework is unacceptable.
The technological shifts that change the game
Just as technological shifts and short-sighted news industry leadership altered history in the late 90s, current technological changes are revealing new possibilities. To counter the centralised, accumulative, unequal, winner-takes-all mindset, we must embrace the opposite. This involves a system where buzzwords are replaced with real values such as autonomy, independence, decentralisation, interoperability, integration, privacy, security, and flexibility. Media lived a long time out of the competitive advantage they had monopolising production and delivery means, which used to be insurmountable, but big tech outplayed media in its own game. So now, the focus must really be to reshuffle everything, not just adapt or wait for philanthropy.
There are already new technologies directed towards this trend. Matrix is a framework for building federated communication systems. It's somewhat similar to Atproto, which powers Bluesky, a social media network. ActivityPub is a W3C standard that supports decentralised social networks by allowing different platforms to interact through APIs for content management and activity subscriptions. Although their scopes differ, both embrace a decentralised approach and mindset. Unlike platforms that depend on a central server like Facebook, federated systems operate as a "network of servers." These servers can share resources, audiences, user data, cloud storage, governance, and manage identities. The strength of such systems lies in their collectivity. Each new participant strengthens the network, and the network continues to operate normally even if a participant leaves.
We are not discussing something that may occur. Early adopters are already establishing their footholds, still not perfect, but that is the default for early adopters. Rappler Community is the first experiment I know of that openly combines news and a federated platform. It won't be the last. WhiteWind is a blog platform where any Bluesky user can connect without extra data and write. IndieWebCamp is a community of independent and personal websites connected by open standards, designed to keep all the data under the author’s control. The execution may vary, but the rationale is already stirring thoughts. We are not far from the point where it will be "just good enough" to do so, which is the turning point where industries are born. For investors wanting to capitalize on an emerging technology, a warning: if you don't invest now, someone else will get ahead in the long run.
Is it possible to make trust to be a currency?
How can trust become valuable at an individual or organisational level, or even be transformed into an asset? For individuals, the key is to add a layer of accountability or security, proof that an individual has been consistently reliable, while still protecting their personas. For news organisations or any other group, it's a process similar to the reputation building that all news companies did in the past. The audience defines the publication's DNA and vice-versa. Each interaction between any participants adds an exchangeable, wafer-thin layer of trust that, when accumulated, ends up shaping the DNA of both. The interaction can be visiting a website, posting on a forum, making a purchase, playing a game, or maintaining a consistent social media account. The emphasis shifts from a specific ephemeral event or 'click' to a long-lasting object - trustworthiness. This concept isn't far removed from the OpenID, but this reshuffled version needs to be tailored for this new purpose - to maintain privacy, prevent data theft, be easily managed, and vouch for a track record of reliability that has so far been overlooked because it wasn't clearly visible. Reliability can emerge as a valuable asset in a system that has been in desperate need of it.
Using reliability to generate value may not be intuitive, just as writing in 140 characters once wasn't. Standards aren't eternal; they're created to fill a need or gap. In the era of distributed computing, decentralisation aligns with the current fragmentation of the media landscape. From a technical perspective, this approach is also crucial as systems, services, and people are often dispersed across various locations and managed by different entities, each with different levels of freedom. The current traffic and data bottlenecks are artificially maintained because the technology business model requires them. Information, however, should flow like capital, making networks and markets free and stable in nature and execution, instead of adhering to the rigged concept of capitalism where "competition is for losers".
This isn't just about trust in media, but trust in everything. It has to be an environment where all interactions are infused with a safety layer that accompanies the user from login to logout, welcoming accountability and helping publications to build their reputation that later can be transformed into money. On a decentralised system, publications can be found without the ransom demanded by a centralised platform to generate traffic, and chat rooms can generate fresh debate instead of hate. Bad behaviour is even - kind of - allowed, but you have to be accountable for it, and more often than not, it will mean you will be punished, as breaches of confidence must be swiftly sanctioned. Privacy and accountability should go hand in hand.
Preparing the room for capital to come
Like the real world should be, there will be successes and failures, but these will not be decided by a single individual, company or sector. Given the system's rules, design, and governance (which will be an unavoidably difficult to manage), user flow will be easier and far less predatory. This is not out of kindness, but because it will be a more stable, manageable, and secure ecosystem for generating value. If trust, stability, and adherence to the rules are rewarded, events like economic meltdowns, monopolies, and unfair competition will become rarer. In a phrase, that’s democracy embedded in a system by design, because balance makes systems more stable, and stability is better for business and everything else.
We often forget that transformational change starts small. There was once a single hunter-gatherer who decided to seed the land and see what happened. Christianity was once revolutionary, and the civil rights movement started in the US because of the courage of one single young woman. The best football league in the world, the English Premier League, was triggered by the Taylor Report, a study conducted a couple of years earlier to dissect why the sport was plagued by hooliganism, unsafe stadiums, and poor overall performance. Climate change became a concern after the IPCC's Second Assessment Report and the Stern Review warned that up to 20% of the global GDP could be compromised forever if nothing was done. If we raise the right flags, a new paradigm like this “Trust Economy” can benefit from the effectiveness of capital to allocate resources, once it’s clear that there are huge profits to be made. The feasibility of this next system lies in the ability to prove that information should belong to civil society. Our role now is to draw a roadmap to prove that such a system is not a utopia, but a good business waiting to happen.
[This is a series of posts processing the insights achieved by the Open Society AI in Journalism Futures 2024 workshop. The opinions are mine, but the subjects were collective]

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024