August 15, 2016 Last Updated 11:43 am

Anonymous curators continue to have unusual powers, yet few in media question why

Only occasionally, as when the Guardian received leaked documents from Facebook, do publishers get a peak behind the curtain to learn how the tech and social network companies determine what content gets featured inside mobile apps, news feeds

There is nothing more frustrating than talking to a modern publishing executive and asking them about those who curate the news at the big tech and social network companies. They are as in the dark as the average citizen about who has their fate in their hands, how they can influence the curators, and who to complain to when things go wrong.

Locked behind their walls, the curators determine which stories get promoted, which media properties will gain readership, and which will fail to be even seen by the users of certain apps or websites. Only occasionally is there a glimpse behind the curtain.


In May, The Guardian found themselves in possession of some documents from Facebook that showed some of the workings at the social network that determine what is seen in user’s news feeds. The assumption has been that it was mostly determined by algorithms.

“But the documents show that the company relies heavily on the intervention of a small editorial team to determine what makes its “trending module” headlines – the list of news topics that shows up on the side of the browser window on Facebook’s desktop version,” Sam Thielman of the Guardian reported.

The documents showed how Facebook’s curation team relied on just ten news sources – BBC News, CNN, Fox News, The Guardian, NBC News, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Yahoo News and Yahoo – for determining what should be trending.

Why do media outlets continue to quietly sit back and rarely question the workings of Apple, Google and the other firms that want the media’s content, but who do not work in the open?

Part of the answer is that for some media firms this works to their advantage. There is no question as long as your property are among the elite few being used regularly inside news feeds, or promoted on the front page of aggregated news apps, you benefit from the exposure (though monetizing that exposure remains an issue).

But more than one media executive has told me that they really have no way to directly influence their results. One newspaper executive told me that they occasionally hear from a big tech firm, but only when that company wants something from them, or wants to let them know of a big change coming down the road.

“It’s great to hear from them,” the media manager told me (but, of course, wanted to remain anonymous), “but it is very much a one-way street.”


A recent conversation with a major magazine company executive reinforced how in the dark many are about the way things work, even inside such common outlets as the Apple App Store. Given a tour of the store during one conversation, this executive, for the first time, saw how unmaintained the store is, and how apps that otherwise violate Apple’s own developer guidelines are taking away business from legitimate publishers.

“I’ve never seen this before,” the magazine manager told me. “This explains a bit about why sales suck.”

For both consumers and developers, most of the big tech firms maintain pretty good quality customer service. Reaching a developer support person at Apple, for instance, generally results in reaching a knowledgeable person who can help you with your problem (though I believe CS has fallen off tremendously in the past year or so). But there are no one managing the App Store that can be contacted directly, and Apple did not add Apple News to the list of things a developer support person can help you with. In essence, Apple News support fell into a black hole.

Google Publisher support is the same, as is its AdSense support. Both communicate regularly via email, but one cannot email back. Again, communication is one-way. A violation of AdSense rules, for instance, can only be answered via the website, and no explanation of the violation is ever given, and so there is no way to resolve the issue other than to simply say “resolved”. Often publisher makes no changes whatsoever, simply marks the violation as “resolved” and moves on.

The Facebook leak proved a bit of an embarrassment for the company, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg meeting with some in the conservative media to smooth ruffled feathers. But since May there has been nothing else mentioned, and the media has moved on. Meanwhile, Facebook has said it wants to cut down on the amount of clickbait inside the News Feed, but how they plan on doing so, and who it will effect is not clear.

“To address clickbait headlines, we previously made an update to News Feed that reduces the distribution of posts that lead people to click and then quickly come back to News Feed. While this update helped, we’re still seeing Pages rely on clickbait headlines, and people are still telling us they would prefer to see clearly written headlines that help them decide how they want to spend their time and not waste time on what they click,” Facebook said.

Photo: Vadim (cropped) by Ed Ivanushkin used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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