The Mark Zuckerberg Manifesto Is a Blueprint for Destroying Journalism
Lip service to the crucial function of the Fourth Estate is not enough to sustain it.
By ADRIENNE LAFRANCE
Feb 17 2017
It’s not that Mark Zuckerberg set out to dismantle the news business when he founded Facebook 13 years ago. Yet news organizations are perhaps the biggest casualty of the world Zuckerberg built.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get worse.
A sprawling new manifesto by Zuckerberg, published to Facebook on Thursday, should set off new alarm bells for journalists, and heighten news organizations’ sense of urgency about how they—and their industry—can survive in a Facebook-dominated world.
Facebook’s existing threat to journalism is well established. It is, at its core, about the flow of the advertising dollars that news organizations once counted on. In this way, Facebook’s role is a continuation of what began in 1995, when Craigslist was founded. Its founder, Craig Newmark, didn’t actively aim to decimate newspapers, but Craigslist still eviscerated a crucial revenue stream for print when people stopped buying newspaper classifieds ads.
Craigslist was the first signal (and became the prototypical example) of a massive unbundling of news services online that would diminish the power and reach of the news, culturally, and make it more difficult to produce a profitable news product.
Zuckerberg’s memo outlines a plan for the next phase of this unbundling, and it represents an expansion of Facebook’s existing threat to the news industry.
Facebook already has the money. The company is absolutely dominating in the realm of digital advertising. It notched $8.8 billion in revenue last quarter—more than $7 billion of which came from mobile-ad sales. One analyst told The New York Timeslast year that 85 percent of all online advertising revenue is funneled to either Facebook or Google—leaving a paltry 15 percent for news organizations to fight over.
Now, Zuckerberg is making it clear that he wants Facebook to take over many of the actual functions—not just ad dollars—that traditional news organizations once had.
Zuckerberg uses abstract language in his memo—he wants Facebook to develop “the social infrastructure for community,” he writes—but what he’s really describing is building a media company with classic journalistic goals: The Facebook of the future, he writes, will be “for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”
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In the past, the deaths of news organizations have jeopardized the prospect of a safe, well-informed, civically-engaged community. One 2014 paper found a substantial drop-off in civic engagement in both Seattle and Denver from 2008 to 2009, after both cities saw the closure of longstanding daily newspapers. (In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer halted its print edition, but continued to produce online news; In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News folded.) Lee Shaker, an assistant professor of communications at Portland State University and the author of the 2014 study, found that the decline was “not consistently replicated over the same time period in other major American cities that did not lose a newspaper,” suggesting that the decline in civic engagement may be attributed to disappearance of local news sources. (The effects in Denver, where 20 percent of the population had subscribed to the shuttered Rocky Mountain News, were especially pronounced.)