The inside story of the runaway elephant in the room

By: Rob Corbidge, 02 May 2024

When it comes to the story of social and search firms vs publishing and media, and how we got where we are today, not many people have seen both sides of the story. These two have...

History isn't always written by the victors. 

Just check the remarkable genetic legacy of Genghis Khan versus the paucity of contemporary records from the era which come from the Mongol viewpoint. It was mostly left to the victims to tell the tale: the Mongols were moving too fast to care.

Has it also been this way with Big Tech? Accounts detailing the rise of the new digital masters are mostly written by outsiders perhaps trapped in the churn and not those doing the actual churning. By and large, that's because Big Tech has been moving too fast to care.

Not that I liken those respectable listed companies to the Mongol hordes of course, but then the Mongols did what they did because they could and looked for no other reason.  There was no FTC back then.

And that also feels like the impression I was left with after watching two tech insiders from the front line of the publishers vs tech debate discuss how we got here.

Jesper Doub, formerly Director of International News Partnerships at FB/Meta, and Madhav Chinnappa, a 13-year veteran at Google and formerly Director of News Ecosystem Development at the company, got together at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia  a couple of weeks ago to host a revealing discussion entitled "What went wrong between Big Tech and the News? And did anything go right?".

It's the best part of an hour of discussion, and well worth the watch - with some wide-ranging topics covered in a Q&A to boot.

Both Chinnappa and Doub have editorial and content backgrounds, and their hybrid careers permit a very different perspective than those of the more familiar techbro types we often see on stage. Chinnapa held senior roles at APTV and the BBC amongst others, while Doub was and is once again a very senior figure within German media.

These are (were) people tasked by said platforms with trying to reduce the friction between the tech giants and our industry of media and content. 

Neither has the air of a person lacking in passion or compassion for our industry, yet I think it’s fair to say most of us don't think the situation they were brought in to improve in fact did so - at least, not from our standpoint.

Initially touching on the period 2012 to 2018, when both camps still believed their relationship was mutually beneficial (even that might be glossing it a bit) and there was still a sense of optimism, both Chinnappa and Doub saw first-hand how that optimism faded towards resentment and suspicion.

Strongly apparent from their discussion was the difference in organisational speed and awareness both experienced during their time straddling the line between publishers and tech.

From Doub's perspective, publishers were "sleeping in class" while Google and Facebook gained ground in the advertising market. He spoke personally about his experience working at a publisher in 2010 and being party to a discussion which suggested building better datasets around subscribers to improve editorial and advertising performance. The idea was squashed from on high; the business felt its traditional means of marketing was optimal.

"The industry missed that opportunity while watching on. Google, Facebook and others built a way more sophisticated ad offering. We're at the point [now] where it's really hard to get behind that given the investments that would take," Doub said in Perugia. 

Both he and Chinnappa spoke of the amazing pace that a Big Tech business can move when a project and product is in its interest, while being utterly oblivious of some of the effects their moves can have.

The different sense of time and focus in a company such as Meta was also illustrated by Doub, using the example of one major publisher who would contact him to highlight that traffic to the publisher via the social platform had "dropped by 6.78% since last Tuesday at 11.15am... what have you done?"

Doub would actually go and ask this question, and be informed by presumably bemused Facebook engineers that this could be caused by any "one of the 90 tests" they were running at that time. The engineer's advice was for the publisher to monitor their data over the next three months and get back to them.

So a good newsroom was watching its daily numbers like a hawk on the wing, while over at Facebook an engineer would turn down their headphones for a moment and shrug their shoulders as they continued to fulfil their employer's objectives, as they were paid to do. 

The concerns of individual publishers were not on their radar. 

Different speeds. Different scales. 

Chinnappa reflected on what he might have done differently if he was to start over again. While his response of "Take the budget and go to the small independent digital-first [publishers], the natives, the ones who understand" was from the heart, he went on to explain what he was up against.

Revealing Google's initial perplexity at government regulation appearing around news publishing, Chinnappa said Mountain View had little awareness of the structural change the news industry was undergoing, even as he directly briefed Sundar Pichai on it. 

It simply wasn't Google’s focus and there was little money in trying to understand it. Given that, Chinnappa concluded, even backing smaller digital-first publishers "would have made no frickin' difference".

Talking around the figure of $12 billion to $14 billion annually which recent research suggested Google and Meta owe US publishers for value extracted from their content, Doub simply said Meta currently sees the value as zero.

Refining his thoughts, he addressed what he believes was the real issue at play: power and influence. The value of news, he said "depends how you measure it. It's almost a religious discussion", a sentiment shared by Chinnappa.

Ceding greater control to publishers was out of the question because to do so would diminish platform power - as in, Google or Meta's global position as a source of power and influence.

In a tech industry which often resembles an industrial dredger and appears to have planetary-sized ambitions, asking them to try and avoid damaging your favourite fishing pond was never going to work. 

The crime of Big Tech was simply being oblivious, and our fault was assuming otherwise.