Grey area, tension, and an opportunity for local publishers

By Michael Shapiro

To say 2020 has been a tumultuous year would be an understatement. A global pandemic is ravaging public health and the economy, protests against racism and police brutality are gripping the nation, and our politics have become even more polarized. Much like cable news or newspapers, our digital world is both a source of information and a prism through which we view information. But what we have in the digital space isn’t quite so easily organized into neat boxes. What is a publisher? What is a platform? Are they really that different? Do they share common characteristics? What rules govern either or both?

The distinction between publisher and platform is one of the internet’s core dilemmas. To simplify for the sake of argument, publishers exert editorial control over the content. Traditionally, for publishers, the rules are generally clear, as are any editorial points of view. What they publish, when they publish and how the information is distributed is governed by a process.

Platforms, on the other hand, serve as a vehicle for users to share information, make connections, and create content. They have worked to define themselves as agnostic and free of bias.

But platforms don’t neatly fit that definition. Algorithms determine which content is presented to users and when. Platforms have some rules by which they regulate content, but they are often applied inconsistently. At the same time, platforms have little to do with the creation of content. Yet, platforms are the source of a massive stream of information, and information has an impact.

What sort of responsibility should social media giants have for the content and advertising that appears on their platforms? It is this question that is driving a reckoning for social media giants. Facebook, for one, is facing a boycott from advertisers amidst calls from the public to regulate hate speech and advertising, while other platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, and Google have been more aggressive in stepping up content moderation.

However, Facebook has attempted to hold the middle ground — to plant itself firmly in the grey area. Brands are taking notice. They have to take note. The public is demanding it. When brands like Disney pull out of advertising because of concerns over hate speech, it is noteworthy, but will it force meaningful change at Facebook and other platforms?


Facebook has an unrivaled, massive audience as an insurance policy. If people keep using Facebook and Instagram, then brands would be remiss not to advertise, the thinking goes. Also, if not Facebook, then where can brands and local businesses spend their advertising dollars and do so effectively?

In my view, this is an opportunity for publishers of all sizes to make a case for advertising dollars. Bonafide news organizations have clear editorial standards. The public expects more from brands and that means that brand safety is critical. Publishers can fill that role, particularly at the local level. Local news, when done right, can foster a highly engaged audience.

As an advertiser would you rather have your marketing alongside local credible reporting of the high school football game or next to Jack Hoff’s post about Bill Gates creating Coronavirus to avenge Hillary Clinton’s defeat? Would you rather have your content marketing featured on your local award-winning news site or as a sponsored post next to the grainy political ad revealing that Joe Biden is actually living in a mental institution?

To take advantage of this opportunity, local news publishers have a lot of work to do. Improving user experience, the quality of advertising products and building engaged audiences by actually reporting on local news are all on the to-do list.

But make no mistake, this is also an opportunity for brands to send a message to the public that they are serious about putting their ad dollars back into local publishing.

Michael Shapiro is CEO and publisher of, a network of more than 80 independently owned and operated local news websites in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. This post originally appeared on Medium at, and is re-posted here with the permission of the author.


Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media

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