Google and Facebook say they are racing to elevate quality journalism in the lead-up to the 2020 elections, but some fear the changes could have unintended consequences for news media.
Google said this week that it is tweaking its algorithms and the guidelines for its human search quality raters in a manner that will allow original reporting - news discovered by the publication and not aggregated from another outlet - to obtain a higher ranking on its search pages and maintain that ranking for a longer time.
That follows Facebook last month saying would begin offering several major news outlets as much as US$3 million ($4.7m) a year to license headlines and previews of articles, according to the Wall Street Journal, for use in a new feature called News Tab that is curated in part by veteran news editors.
Both companies have also pledged US$300m to fund local journalism projects over a three-year period.
Still, some in news media are concerned that Google's and Facebook's efforts may actually prove to have less of a positive impact than the companies envision - and may even be detrimental.
"If they want to have quality content for their users, which they say they want to have, they're going to have to come up with a more broadly sustainable business model for publishers than handing out candy every once in a while," said David Chavern of the News Media Alliance trade group, which represents 2,000 news organisations and has been critical of tech companies.
Much of the way news currently surfaces is due to algorithms, which have been trained to identify important news. But some signs that might signal an important story - like lots of people sharing it or clicking on it - doesn't necessarily mean it's real news. And the systems can also be tricked.
Critics have lambasted Google and Facebook for the role their platforms played in amplifying a Russian disinformation campaign around the 2016 presidential election, saying that the companies were slow to identify the foreign interference and didn't do enough to point users toward quality journalism. With the 2020 election around the corner, the companies say they are working on how to better address fake news stories, deceptive social media accounts, and deepfake videos powered by artificial intelligence.
At the same time, politicians including President Donald Trump have accused Google, Facebook and other major tech companies of anti-conservative bias in the way the platforms surface news.
With the new changes, companies appear to be realising that humans may need to play a bigger role in helping identify quality news.
Google says its has instructed its human raters to prioritise news reports that display a high degree of skill, time and effort. To evaluate trustworthiness, raters are told that "prestigious awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize award, or a history of high quality original reporting are strong evidence of positive reputation."
It's not clear how that will play out, particularly with local publications, which rarely have the resources to compete in national journalism contests but are often the only professional news source in a given area.
In response to questions about Facebook's approach to news, a spokesman referenced an internal memo about News Tab obtained by The Information, which stated that editors "will seek to promote the media outlet that first reported a particular news story, and additionally prioritise stories broken by local news outlets." Should the story be covered nationally or internationally, the human editors will then make subsequent decisions about the developments.
Employment in newspaper newsrooms has declined by nearly half since 2008 as readers turn to free news content and entertainment gleaned from platforms such as Google and Facebook. Local news, in particular, has been hit by the collapsing news media ecosystem, with fewer customers willing to spend subscription dollars.
While Chavern of the News Media Alliance trade group lauded Google and Facebook's US$300m commitments, he said it won't be enough to reinvigorate the news industry before the 2020 election. He also said that it is possible that the new approaches could discourage outlets from attributing or hat-tipping each other's reporting in an attempt to look the most "original" to the companies' algorithms.
"The current algorithms punish investments and promote copying," said Chavern. "That's the baseline."