Some say fake news helped swing the US election for Trump – or at the very least, is helping infantilize and weaponize ordinary Americans through incidents like Pizzagate. Meanwhile, Facebook is belatedly and begrudgingly realizing its own role in this mess as a publisher, with Mark Zuckerberg still in denial about the extent of the problem. Traditional de facto newsrooms are still shrinking, or getting abandoned altogether. For the big brand names in news that are still around, accusations of media bias are endemic – and the critics aren’t all wrong. Digital publishing and social media are often seen as a contributing factor to the downfall of the old self-appointed gatekeepers of truth. How can technology actually help media outlets save themselves?
We asked the fine folks at PressReader for their take. The Richmond, BC-based company touts itself as the world’s largest digital kiosk. It’s like Spotify or Netflix for publications, offering unlimited access to 6,200 newspapers and magazines from around the world, from The Washington Post and Vogue to GQ, Forbes and more – many of which typically will hide content behind a paywall. Users can customize their home feed experience. More recently, they’ve been innovating with geolocation capability, offering 8,400 PressReader HotSpots, with libraries, hotels, cafés, corporate offices, airport lounges, airlines, and cruise lines providing access to the platform.
Chief content officer, Nikolay Malyarov, was a part of the original founding team at PressReader, when it was still printing paper copies as Newspaper Direct. He explains that PressReader’s business model and mission put the company at the intersection of news, media, and technology.
Given the challenges news and magazine companies are facing, tell me how PressReader’s approach might be an option for media companies to stay relevant?
“We’ve been working with industry from day one, so we’ve got some perspective on this,” Malyarov said. “We’re an 18-year-old company. The problem we’ve seen is the way publishers are approaching changes to the industry…one of our underlying assumptions is that there is a place for quality journalism in a democratic society. How do we package that? How do we monetize it so it can be a workable business model?”
When packaging a product that readers want, there’s still a certain trust value with the bigger branded publications – which adds value to the offering, Malyarov said.
As humankind overall, we’re not catching up as quickly to tech in terms of responding to these new threats. – Nikolay Malyarov,
“The content we present is effectively content that’s been vetted by humans,” he adds, meaning the professional editors and writers of the publications on their platform. “Elements have been added to that to allow you to engage. The curation is not driven algorithmically. We’re giving prominence to legacy brands who want to build an affinity with a younger generation. There’s been an awakening on the end-user part to have that end-user content vetted in a certain way.”
This is a way for news consumers to feel like they’re getting a more balanced, unbiased view of the world through the lenses of a wide range of publications. “We’ve chosen 6,200 publications that were interested in being part of this,” Malyarov says. “The Washington Post is next to the Washington Times. The National Post sits next to the Globe and Mail. Readers will see there’s a balanced approach. The Daily Mail is next to the Guardian.”
As an observer who’s been so intimately connected with the media scene for years, what is different about this era of ‘fake news’?
“The key difference is the speed in which this content is disseminated and how easy it is to reach the masses who don’t discern the fake from real,” Malyarov says.
In a previous era, National Enquirer, Weekly World News, and other publications had limited reach. Virality wasn’t there. Today, the speed that it is disseminated at is unprecedented and it is happening when people’s attention span is at an all-time low.
What might be making the problem worse is that our traditional methods of verification don’t work as well, or can be counterproductive, when the fake news comes in so fast. “You have a certain trust invested in your friends as well. You see that person sharing it, it’s almost default verification that this is real,” – even if it isn’t.
Technology is making these issues worse, but can it make it better?
“You can’t blame technology for doing that. As humankind overall, we’re not catching up as quickly to tech in terms of responding to these new threats. For instance, it took us electing Trump and then doing the analysis to why Trump was elected to see that one of the factors was fake news. Whether it had the effect people said it did, swaying 60 million people, that’s for political scientists and psychologists to go through.”
“Is PressReader part of a solution to this? Through vetted curation of large and more traditionally trusted news gatekeepers?” He asked rhetorically. “Probably. Is it the only solution? Most likely not.”
But even towards a lot of those traditional big news brands, there are accusations of media bias, so it could be a case of reinforcing the older paradigm. And of course, with Facebook, we’ve seen how these echo chambers can develop. How does PressReader get around that?
“The difference with Facebook and us is that PressReader lets the person create a very personalized stream of content, more topic-driven as opposed to bias-driven. You choose topics. If you’re going to follow the US election, for instance, we’re going to make sure the content comes from both sides.
“Purely from my perspective, there’s going to be more personalization of content that we’re going to see on these platforms. Individuals are going to look for someone who speaks your language. That’s driving it towards a more biased approach. Even if it’s real, it’s not necessarily a problem.”
Reaching a bit outside of the focus of this interview, I’m curious about your opinion on Wikileaks, given what they were doing during the US election? They have a controversial take in that ‘all information should be free’ (though seemingly, that rule applies disproportionately to the US military and NSA).
“I strongly believe in transparency,” Malyarov says. “But here comes the moral dilemma. There are certain limits to the transparency when it comes to specific state secrets.”