Don Rogers: How Facebook might play fair with newspapers
What would Mark Zuckerberg and I talk about, over at the lake house or maybe the boat?
We haven’t met. We won’t ever meet. Different circles. But if we did, what?
He’d be friendly, I think, thoughtful. Weighed down but fundamentally optimistic about the world, his oyster. We’d fumble for common interest.
Love the place, I’d surely say, and how could that not be true? Lakeside, wide view almost as if looking up at the flat water, a mirror, soft blanket of grass amid broad-trunked pines, clean scent nothing like the ocean, air so light. A couple of docks piercing the afternoon’s last sunlight.
He’d surprise me, saying, I’ve been reading your paper, the Sun. And that other one, Moonsomething. In print. A shake of the head and maybe a faint smile. Don’t tell anyone.
Connectivity’s not the best here, I’d say. He’d wave me off, a little impatient.
He’d say he was surprised he liked the feel of paper, the serendipity discovering interests he never knew he had. Not like that with Facebook, always sorting, those algorithms, same people saying basically the same things, showing basically the same images, pushing the same buttons on the same topics.
He’d wonder aloud how to capture something of the community paper, its real if humble news, that sense of discovery, in Facebook. There must be a way, he’d say. No, not even the public groups quite do it, not like this.
I’d frown. I don’t know much about him. Youngest self-made billionaire at 23 before 21-year-old Kylie Jenner surpassed him this year, likes to break big things apart, a hacker at heart, this guy whose campus joke metastasized into a network that has helped the Ruskies elect an American president and us keep up with old classmates.
I’m a father now, he’d mention as if reading my mind. Being a parent brings a different perspective.
His wife, Priscilla, must be a good influence, too, even with the humble bragging about donating 99 percent of their Facebook stock shares, which still leaves them far up into that 1 percent of the 1 percent, able to snap up this pair of lakeside estates at less than 10 days’ personal earnings for him. There’s some perspective.
We’d stroll the lawn, to my relief finding plenty to talk about — yes, good visit to D.C., the president was surprisingly gracious, he’d say. Some lawmakers really are morons, but we knew that, right? I’d nod while thinking of the lake laced with compounds like this going back 140 years, magnates for all eras, timber and gold then, silicon now. The west shore shadow would deepen as he got to the point.
You might guess why we called, he’d start.
I’d make a joke, something like: I was pretty sure it couldn’t be for my expertise in dating apps or AI. He wouldn’t seem to hear.
We’re doing these grants, he’d say, a little weakly, I’d think.
I’d shake my head. That’s all fine, I’d reply. It won’t change anything in real life.
I’d have his attention. It’s not so much a problem with audience as the business itself, I’d say. Alas, I’d get on my usual roll: We have the same audience as before, maybe more. It’s just that the readers are moving online. And online you and Google get the dollars that we’d expect to come to us and support the journalism. Which is fine, that’s progress and innovation and all that. We’ve had a great run — 450 years — and maybe now we finally sink under the waves.
Except nothing takes your place, he’d say. We’re concerned about that.
You should be. You’re like ticks on the dog. We absorb all the cost, and you and Google reap all the benefit. Great deal for you. For now.
I’d stop to take in the view. But we’ve lost half the journalists we had before the recession, I’d say, and newspapers are the bedrock. No one else has staff like that, not broadcast, not online-only outfits, not out here. Then everyone wonders why there’s so much fake news and sensationalized junk. Well, duh.
I’d look at him. I know you’ve got bigger things, I’d say. Privacy concerns, all that propaganda, trolling, bullying. Facebook dating and Facebook crypto currency and whatever else. Concerns about your reputation and the future. Killing off a free supplier of actual news, that can’t exactly be at the top of your list.
Not good, he’d say. It’s getting dark. Let’s get something to eat. Over peanut butter and jam sandwiches — his chef makes great ones — we’d talk into the night. The wine wouldn’t be so bad either. Some kind of Cab.
He’d have ideas. What if we revisited micropayments, but with aggregators paying?
Their fair share? I’d reply. I’d sound what passes these days for presidential. Maybe we’d chuckle before continuing. He’s no fan of the EU, either.
He’d wonder, How do you pay The Associated Press? That’s like licensing, right? We could pay you like you pay them.
Or just contract us. We’re providing a real service. At least I think we are.
You are, he’d say. I want to keep reading your paper when we’re up. But there’s a higher purpose here.
Well, if you’re really about making the world better, … I’d say, while conceding it might be more than a little self-serving to say so, even if true. It would at least be fair.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.