File photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Cape Town - News media from around the world have come together in Cape Town for the International News Media Association (INMA) Global Media Summit Africa this week.

The two-day conference focuses on new media and the challenges faced by print legacy companies, which are slowly evolving digital strategies to remain relevant to their audiences.

There was a strong focus on big data and algorithms on Monday, with a number of speakers addressing the attendees on the importance of knowing their audiences and using this knowledge to adapt content strategies to better suit the reader, rather than being the gatekeepers of information.

Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief and chief executive of Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper with a more than 160-year legacy, focused mainly on Facebook’s role as a global editor and the threat the social network and tech giant Google poses to what users and online consumers of news media get to see.

Hansen, who in September famously took on Facebook for its censorship of the “napalm girl” picture which became the symbol of the horror of the Vietnam War, spoke about the social network’s role as a gatekeeper of media.

“We have established Facebook is becoming more of a media company than a technology company like its founder Mark Zuckerberg consistently claims. They have become the global editor-in-chief.

“It will be interesting to see how Facebook handles its role and its responsibility as an editor.”

Facebook’s community of 1.7 billion users puts it in a prime position as an influencer in the media world, said Hansen.

But does its presence and influence on the global media stage pose a threat to established news media?

“It’s a huge threat. Considering the amount of content Facebook has access to and aggregates via its algorithm, it poses a huge threat in terms of drawing away audiences and revenue,” Hansen said.

It’s up to media companies to use their established voice and influence to speak out against any possible censorship by the networking giant, he said.

“When something is wrong, we as journalists have the power to stand up and say something is wrong. When Facebook tries to censor something, like they did with the Terror of War picture, and they refuse to debate about it, that’s when we have to stand up and say something is wrong. That’s our power as journalists and as the media. We have the power to change things.”

Facebook’s success is born out of its development of algorithms which gives users exactly what they want, allowing audiences to cut out news items that may not fit their profiles based on their browsing habits. This, Hansen said, is something media companies can learn from. “We should use algorithms to become more relevant.

“Only a little bit of our bucket of content is viewed by the global audience. If we use algorithms, we can better reach our audience. We can pick out content that is best suited to you. And we have to use all the tools we have at our disposal to determine that. I can say to you: I know that you haven’t visited our site in the last five days, but here are the three articles I think you have to read’.”

However, the media’s role as the gatekeepers of information and the clear voice of balanced reporting must remain paramount to companies’ strategies.

“If there was a strong, global media algorithm, and if globally there was one body that can stand up to Facebook (and Google) as a global editor, that’s not what we want. We need a diversity of voices, that audiences can have access to, with those strong journalistic tenets of balance and fairness and ethics, that would be ideal. But even if there is one global body for media doing that? At least then there are two. Us and Facebook.”

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Cape Argus