News companies lost control of distribution because they weren't traditionally tech companies, staffed with engineers or thinking programmatically. Today, as even Domino's Pizza shows, every company must become a tech company if it wants to control its fate with customers.
"We lacked the institutional will or insight to move swiftly enough in the right directions and we were held back in transformation by large, legacy organizations and the revenues that came with them. And doing journalism is a hard, resource hungry business."
The software developer and "father of blogging," Dave Winer, puts a finer point on it:
"Journalism stood by while blogging took root. They covered it, but largely dismissed it. They ignored RSS. They ignored everything, including the threat to their art. I warned them many times, here on scripting.com, that they would regret letting the tech industry own their distribution system. But that's what happened. Without any resistance whatsoever. Journalism let tech move in and take over."
As Bell has chatted with me about before, it's very hard to run an innovation "lab" inside a "factory" which is turning out news every day. And as the "Innovator's Dilemma" has highlighted, it's exceedingly difficult for businesses to turn away from their main source of revenue right now to consider the revenue they'll need five or 10 years from now.
Here's The Danger
Social media platforms now edit and shape culture, even though they feel kind of allergic to having that responsibility. "Every time an algorithm is tweaked, an editorial decision is being made," Bell writes.
"As news organisations cease to print physical newspapers, as linear television struggles to survive the buffeting of on-demand services, as services become not just digital first but digital only, journalism and free expression become part of a commercial sphere where the activities of news and journalism are marginal. ... Their culture is as alien to reporting and editing as ours is to designing social software."
Algorithms and protocols that run social platforms affect discourse, and the engineers behind those protocols don't have to think about journalism or democratic responsibility in how news is created and disseminated.
A prime example of this is the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of protest photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what news you see.
"In a world where we navigate our daily lives through social platforms, just how this information reaches us, what is on a 'trending' list, how these algorithms work, becomes not just of marginal interest but a central democratic concern. Even the obscure issue of equal access to the internet, or 'net neutrality', can affect how we get our news and information."
So, Now What?
Journalism organizations should not be wholly reliant on technology companies, Bell says. The only way to be less reliant is to make more of their own technology -- specifically, building tools and services that "put software in the service of journalism rather than the other way around," she says.
Journalists and editors should learn to make technology, "learn programmatic thinking" and understand the world they operate in, Bell says. She argues that to preserve journalism's traditional role, "We must stop relying solely on the tools and platforms of others and build our own."
Winer, who wrote a response to Bell, adds that the open source tools out there are often ignored, but can be adopted and tooled for news purposes. "We have enough open formats and protocols to build a dozen news distribution systems with all kinds of algorithms," Winer says.
Bell adds that large news organizations (like NPR) that already make technology should extend these types of technologies as part of their core mission.
Finally, she says we ought to be better reporters. Technology is a system of power in it of itself. Journalists should hold it to account.