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The responsibility of news organizations in the use of algorithms

The case of the Spanish cybermedia
La responsabilité des entreprises de journalisme dans l’utilisation des algorithmes : le cas des cyber-médias espagnols
David Parra, Concha Edo et Almudena Rodríguez

Résumés

L’industrie de l’information a commencé à utiliser des algorithmes dans ses processus de production à la suite de la généralisation de ce type d’outils dans les grandes entreprises qui dominent l’économie numérique actuelle ; et dans les domaines de la recherche du contenu, des réseaux sociaux ou du commerce électronique. Cette recherche examine le processus de mise en œuvre progressive de cette technologie dans des cyber-médias espagnols en analysant les quatre sites ayant le plus grand nombre de visiteurs uniques sur son site Web. Les aspects liés à l’application d’algorithmes dans la distribution et la génération de contenu et dans les relations avec les publics et les annonceurs sont examinés.

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Entrées d’index

Mots-clés :

algorithme, cybermédia, SEO, bot

Keywords :

algorithm, cybermedia, SEO, bot
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Texte intégral

Introduction

1The consolidation of the Information Society (Masuda, 1968) created a new scenario in which a new distribution of work is witnessed, new occupations appear and other classic ones disappear and new niches of rapid development emerge. This new cyber environment is applicable to any activity and to the group of productive sectors amongst which the information industry is included, as authors like Bell (1973), Touraine (1976), Drucker (1993), De Kerckhove (1995) or Sáez (2007), amongst others, have highlighted.

2This is a case of an interconnected habitat where the foundations are laid to increase production speed levels and lower economic costs, thus achieving added value of special importance in the business environment (also in newspaper enterprise) : productivity, competitiveness and profitability (Parra and Martínez Arias, 2018).

3With the logical differences between the different groups of countries, the aforementioned Information Society is materialized in aspects of a markedly infrastructural nature (continued increase in Internet connections, increase in penetration levels of mobile telephony, growth in electronic commerce, promotion of teleworking, consolidation of digital cities), qualification of human resources (consolidation of e-training, improvements in web accessibility) and efficiency in the action developed by the business sector (active use of new information and communications technologies in the processes of generation, distribution and storage of goods and services, systematization in digital transformation) (Telefónica, 2004).

4This particular context stands as a particularly suitable breeding ground for the use of algorithms by different service providers and, in a singular way, by the media that aspire to protect, consolidate and strengthen their business position in an increasingly competitive environment.

Literature review

Conceptualization of the notion of algorithm

5The definition of the algorithm is in the process of being reassessed, largely due to the development of new information and communication technologies. The period when the concept was identified with a mere list of instructions whose final objective was the resolution of an abstract calculation or problem (Brassard and Bratley, 1995 : 2) seems to now lie in the past, although there is always the possibility that such a solution has still not been specified, a matter that in no way invalidates its main attributes.

6In the 21st century, the approach to the notion of algorithm on the part of scientific and scholarly literature is based on aspects concerning its identification with robotics (Steiner, 2012 : 22), a type of mathematical construction whose control structure is based on a set of criteria of various kinds (Hill, 2016 : 39) or with a software code that processes certain ranges of instructions (Monasterio, 2017 : 186).

7Advances in electronics and information technology have contributed, especially since the 1980s, to an extension of its application to practically all production segments, with particular emphasis on tertiary and secondary sectors respectively (Castells, 1996).

8However, the emergence of the Web 2.0 environment (DiNucci, 1999 : 32) and its subsequent practical application concerning the manual semantic web (O’Reilly, 2005) is the main aspect that established the basis for its consolidation as a first level strategic tool available to large corporations that operate in the aforementioned Information Society.

9The emergence, expansion and consolidation of search engines such as Google or Yahoo, social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, or e-commerce companies such as Amazon or Alibaba cannot be understood without the systematic application of a complex algorithmic structure to all of its production processes in aspects of access and data processing and the subsequent creation, distribution and storage of physical or virtual content.

10In 1998, Google revolutionized the content search process with the implementation of the Page Rank proprietary development algorithm, specifically conceived from third-party external links and not through indexation criteria provided by the person responsible for the website, as was usual until that time in services such as Wandex (World Wide Web Wanderer) developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1993 and similar.

11Not only are the foundations of the famous notion of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) established on the basis of such a proposal, but Google proceeds to develop a set of services and functionalities that extend the scope of the algorithm. In just three years, it launched Adwords (2000), which offered sponsored advertising to potential advertisers ; developed the first application programming interfaces (2002), implemented Text Links Ads (2003), a kind of supermarket where web pages can buy the links with the text they consider to be genuinely relevant, and presented Adsense (2003), which allowed the website publishers to obtain revenue by placing advertisements on their page.

12The Page Rank algorithm was succeeded by Florida (2003), Austin (2004), Universal Search (2007), Suggest (2008), Vince (2009), Caffeine (2009), Panda (2011), Venice (2012), Penguin (2012), Hummingbird (2013), Pigeon (2014), Phantom (2015), Possum (2016) or Fred (2017), amongst others. At present the level of updates of the current algorithm is around five hundred per year.

Diachronic development in its application to the information industry

13The information industry does not remain oblivious to this new reality. In general terms, the use of algorithms by news organizations is increasing as a result of the concatenation of three main aspects : a notable knowledge of their increasingly participative and critical audiences, the deepening of the digital transformation process in global terms and advances and innovations in the implementation of increasingly powerful hardware and software platforms.

14As a starting point, the media possesses a quantitative and qualitative knowledge of its audiences that is far superior to that of previous eras. The constant development of web analytics tools provides a tremendous flow of data and is the embryo of the application of content positioning strategies (SEO, SEM), not only by specialists in the field but also by all professionals who are part of the cybermedia editing process (Masip, 2014 : 261). Added to this question is the increasingly active role of its recipients, who have become emerging prosumers (Toffler, 1990 and Bird, 2011).

15The second of these circumstances constitutes a strategic response to the redefinition of this sector’s business model, affected by strategic changes such as the transition from a local to a global demand-led marketplace, the loss of the monopoly they held not only in distribution but also in content production, the consolidation of a generation of information content consumers who are increasingly critical of journalists’ work carried or the conversion of the standard referred to the processes of knowledge transmission and acquisition (Parra et al., 2017 : 1673-1674).

16The third paves the way towards using a set of technological innovations amongst which include Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things (Parasie, 2015) or robotics in its home, building and urbatic automation aspects, which contribute to the creation of a disruptive dynamic where the traditional value chain is surpassed and the companies that were market leaders are obliged to perform the digital transformation at an accelerated pace (AMETIC, 2016 : 16).

17To a great extent, systematization in the use of algorithms during the first decade of the 21st century is derived from the pressure exerted on news organizations by content aggregators, search engines and social networks. These three entities employ an aggressive strategy of content positioning (not their own but that generated by the media itself or by the Internet community) that helps to steal away audience traffic and, therefore, market share in the advertising market.

18Although it was in the United States where this first occurred (with the emergence of news aggregation companies such as Topix or Daylife and the emergence of the Google News Service), Spain was not unaware of this situation, with the appearance of information on the market regarding initiatives such as Cunoticias, Lalistawip or Meneame, amongst others.

19From this point of view, there is an inversion of journalistic practice : the standard “first verify the contents and then publish them” becomes “first publish and then wait for the filtering action of the Internet user community to which they are aimed” (Orihuela, 2005).

20Access to cybermedium contents is no longer carried out as a priority through its website but is also produced through search engines or social networks, each of these three routes distributing approximately one third of online traffic. Therefore, both search engines and social networks play the dual role of competitors and allies of the information industry.

21From that moment on, the great American media corporations, with The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal at the forefront, committed to the use of algorithms and set a trend that began to be followed by large multimedia holdings on an international scale. However, at that time its use was still limited to very limited facets of journalistic production (especially that concerned with the dissemination of content).

22The big change in terms of its global use began in 2014. The Los Angeles Times announced that it would start generating its breaking news through a robot called Quakebot and through the use of an algorithm. That is, robotics and computer science were combined explicitly for the first time in the field of journalism.

23That same year, the editor of The Guardian decided to launch a print newspaper in the United States, under the title #Open001, whose contents are selected by The Guardian’s own algorithm. #Open001 has a circulation of only 5,000 copies and is distributed free of charge on a monthly basis amongst advertising agencies, purchasing centres and other media, but its great novelty is the application of the algorithm to an exclusively printed product.

24A somewhat different line of action has been followed by the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, owned by Schibsted Media Group, as of 2015. Their strategy is to implement an algorithm that is responsible for designing the main page of their website, prioritizing certain information over others based on two main variables. The first is provided by the editor who has just generated the news, and who must assess its journalistic relevance (from 1 to 5) and the estimated useful life on the home page (short, medium or long). The second takes into account the behaviour of the audience based on variables such as clicks, conversion rates or time spent on by the Internet user on each news item, amongst others. In just three years, the cybermedium has gone from making a loss to generating profits for its editors. Also, in 2015, Le Monde became the first major newspaper to use a robotics environment, controlled by an algorithm that transforms data into texts. This innovation, developed by an external company (Syllabs), allowed it to cover the departmental elections of March 2015 with a notable increase in visitor traffic to its website.

25In the case of Spain, the first cybermedium that expressly emphasized its commitment to the use of algorithms in its production structure was La información (https://www.lainformacion.com/​), both in its beta version created during the last quarter of 2008 and in its official launch in April 2009. Its promoters at the time, DixiMedia, alluded to their own algorithm Inforank and explained that it was based on “a combination of almost 20 criteria, where the importance of the source with regard to each topic and the relevance of the news will be considered in real time, taking into account factors such as their interest, impact, debate, contextualization, visibility and validity” (lainformacion.com, 2008). However, slightly earlier experiences such as Adn.es (online as of September 2007) or Soitu.es (online since December 2009) already displayed the use of algorithms for a better positioning of their contents, although their short-lived durations (both disappeared in 2009) prevent a detailed assessment of their respective strategic commitments (Parra, 2009).

26In all these pioneering examples, several main facets are perceived in the use of algorithms by the media (especially in their production and distribution processes) : the optimizing of the data flow that news organizations receive from their audiences as a way to more effectively reach them, strengthening their commercial ties ; the achievement of a better positioning of their contents by using the potential of search engines and social networks ; the improvement of their advertising effectiveness ratios for advertisers ; or the streamlining of content production through the minimization of their human resources structure.

27This intense activity has given rise to an extensive scientific bibliography that has grown exponentially from the second decade of the 21st century. The works of authors such as Diakopoulos (2010), Cohen et al. (2011), Kraemer et al. (2011), Pariser (2011). Anderson (2012), Tascón (2012), Karlsen and Stavelin (2014), Lewis and Usher (2014), Carlson (2017), Dörr and Hollnbuchner (2017), amongst others, have opened a solid line of research that lays the foundations for a better understanding not only of the operation and extension of the process but also of the effects of a very diverse nature (ethical, employment-related, professional, legal ...) that it entails.

28From this point of view, we propose a definition of algorithm applied to the information industry considered as a set of software codes whose respective processes of formulation, design, development, implementation, monitoring, modification and re-use, both in terms of the creation of contents as in their distribution, are based on the opportunities offered by new information and communication technologies.

Object of study and methodology

Object of study

29This paper focuses on the analysis and determination of the degree of responsibility that information companies acquire when using a technological resource such as the algorithm within their production structure.

30Our hypothesis is that, beyond the strategic aspects previously indicated, this new environment raises numerous problems and doubts concerning aspects related to the deontology of journalistic information, the redefinition of the role played by journalists in the information industry, the way that journalistic companies comply with the legal regulation concerning increasing levels of protection of Internet user data or the proliferation of false contents and hoaxes through the Internet (Diakopoulos, 2015).

31The announcement made by Facebook at the beginning of 2018 that it would use a new algorithm that prioritizes audience contents over those generated by the media contributes to underlining the relevance that is established between the different entities that, directly or indirectly, form part of the information market.

32In particular, the specific case of Spanish cybermedia is examined, verifying the scope of this type of practice based on a synchronous examination and delimitation of a set of criteria according to different facets within the scope of journalistic production.

33This research is part of the guidelines that make up the project entitled “Keys to the redefinition and survival of journalism and challenges in the post-PC era”. This project has been financed by the Spanish government’s Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness (MINECO) through the National R + D + i Plan, within the State Programme of Research, Development and Innovation for Social Challenges (Ref. CSO2016-79782-R).

Methodology

34On the one hand, we have chosen to select a sample of the main Spanish cybermedia. For this purpose, a quantitative criterion has been used, such as the monthly number of single users accessing their respective portals on the Internet, taking as a benchmark measurement system that referring to the comScore company, which today has a greater impact on the Spanish communication industry. This system is based on the combination of census and sample data.

35The former are obtained from the proprietary tool of web analytics, DAX (Digital Analytix), whose functioning is based on hybrid technology UDM (Unified Digital Measurement). UDM receives the census traffic forwarded through labels and thus discards non-human traffic. Once the CPP radius (Cookies per Person) is obtained, it extrapolates how many individuals would represent the total number of cookies generated.

36As far as the sample data is concerned, it is sourced from a group of more than 31,000 users who have agreed to have them installed in their devices for accessing web content (mainly personal computers and mobile phones), the equivalent of an audiometer that incorporates a mini computer program called cProxy. This software enables the registration of all websites that the user has accessed.

37The consultation of the measurements raised by comScore during the period from August 2017 to July 2018 (at bimonthly intervals) allows the following results to be extracted :

Table 1 : Measurements raised by comScore

Reference month

August 2017

October 2017

December 2017

March 2018

May 2018

July 2018

Number of single users

El País : 19,766,000

El País : 22,895,000

El País : 18,900,000

El País : 20,959,000

El País : 20,745,000

El País : 18,731,000

El Mundo : 18,112,000

El Mundo : 22,087,000

El Mundo : 17,400,000

El Undo : 21,082,000

El Mundo : 21,095,000

El Mundo : 18,926,000

La Vanguardia : 18,040,000

La Vanguardia : 21,947,000

La Vanguardia : 17,200,000

La Vanguardia : 19,146,000

La Vanguardia : 18,576,000

La Vanguardia : 17,461,000

Abc : 15,145,000

Abc : 17,688,000

Abc : 14,700,000

Abc : 17,355,000

Abc : 17,600,000

Abc : 15,214,000

Source : comScore

38From the analysis of this data, we can deduce a continuity in the classification of the four Spanish cybermedia that have a greater number of single users. Therefore, the relevance of establishing a significant sample consisting of the following reference URLs is noted : El País (https://elpais.com/​), El Mundo (http://www.elmundo.es/​), La Vanguardia (http://www.lavanguardia.com/​) and Abc (http://www.abc.es/​).

39On the other hand, depending on the potential use of algorithms in the productive structure of each of these cyber-newspapers, four strategic areas have been identified and, in turn, different aspects have been distinguished in each of them.

  • The use of algorithms in the distribution of journalistic content. Three possible actions are distinguished : SEO positioning, management of presence in social networks and purchase of web traffic (we do not enter to examine the practice of purchasing traffic but the use of algorithms for this practice).

  • The use of algorithms in the generation of journalistic content. This is identified with the use of robots.

  • The use of algorithms to establish business relationships with audiences. A distinction is made between algorithms aimed at the analysis of the global data of its Internet users, which allows the individual identification of each receiver and those related to automation in the sending of newsletters and business proposals through the aforementioned algorithms.

  • The use of algorithms to establish commercial relationships with advertisers. There is a difference between the management of contextual or non-intrusive advertising and the generation of branded content (content of an advertising, marketing or public relations nature).

Research findings

El País

Table 2 : El País

Distribution of journalistic content

SEO positioning

Yes. Based on own CMS with specific positioning pluggin + content tagging by publishers

Management of presence in social networks

Yes (algorithm managed by El País Technical Team-EPET)

Web traffic purchase

This practice does not appear through the use of algorithms

Generation of journalistic content

Use of robots

Its use does not appear

Business relationship with the audience

Global analysis

Yes. Through own development algorithm

Individual identification

Yes. Through account creation that combines personal identification + email address

Sending newsletters/business proposals

Yes. After selecting the type of newsletter based on thematic contents + affinities

Business relationship with advertisers

Contextual advertising management

Yes. Uses externalized cXense proprietary algorithm

Generation of branded content

It does not use algorithms. It has a human resources team dedicated to this task

Source : own elaboration

El Mundo

Table 3 : El Mundo

Distribution of journalistic content

SEO positioning

Yes. Based on own CMS with specific positioning plug-in + content tagging by publishers

Management of presence in social networks

No. It is performed by staff dedicated to this aspect.

Web traffic purchase

This practice does not appear through the use of algorithms

Generation of journalistic content

Use of robots

Its use does not appear

Commercial relationship with the audience

Global analysis

Yes. Through own development algorithm

Individual identification

Yes. Through account creation that combines personal identification + email address and raises a combined action with the data of the Internet user in Facebook/LinkedIn

Sending newsletters/business proposals

Yes. Prior selection of the newsletter’s thematic typology and with cross-promotional actions with other websites of the Unidad Editorial group that is the proprietor of the cybermedium

Business relationship with advertisers

Contextual advertising management

The use of an algorithm for such action is not recorded

Generation of branded content

It does not use algorithms. It has a human resources team dedicated to this task

Source : own elaboration

La Vanguardia

Table 4 : La Vanguardia

Distribution of journalistic content

SEO positioning

Yes. Based on own CMS with specific positioning plug-in + content tagging by publishers

Management of presence in social networks

No. It is performed by staff dedicated to this aspect

Web traffic purchase

This practice does not appear through the use of algorithms

Generation of journalistic content

Use of robots

Its use does not appear

Commercial relationship with the audience

Global analysis

Yes. Through our own development algorithm

Individual identification

Yes. Through the creation of an account that requires an email address and proposes a combined action with the Internet user’s data on Facebook/Twitter

Sending newsletters/business proposals

Yes. After selecting the type of newsletter based on thematic contents + affinities

Business relationship with advertisers

Contextual advertising management

The use of an algorithm for such action is not recorded

Generation of branded content

It does not use algorithms. It has a human resources team dedicated to this task

Source : own elaboration

ABC

Table 5 : ABC

Distribution of journalistic content

SEO positioning

Yes. Based on own CMS (developed in the Vocento Group, owner of the medium) with specific positioning pluggin + content labelling by publishers

Management of presence in social networks

No. It is performed by staff dedicated to this aspect

Web traffic purchase

This practice does not appear through the use of algorithms

Generation of journalistic content

Use of robots

Its use does not appear

Business relationship with the audience

Global analysis

Yes. Through own development algorithm

Individual identification

Yes. Through two algorithms : a geolocation one that offers personalized access to content ; and another through the creation of an account that requires an email address and proposes a combined action with the Internet user’s data on Facebook / Google +

Sending newsletters/business proposals

Yes. Through the geolocation algorithm based on the thematic interests of the Internet user and with cross-promotional actions from other websites belonging to Vocento, the owner group of the medium

Business relationship with advertisers

Contextual advertising management

The use of an algorithm for such action is not recorded

Generation of branded content

It does not use algorithms. It has a team of human resources, integrated into the Vocento Group through the CMVocento marketer, dedicated to this task

Source : own elaboration

Conclusions

40One. All the cybermedia analysed employ algorithms for the distribution of journalistic content through the use of their own CMS software, which includes a dedicated technical team. For this, a specific SEO positioning plug-in and a content labelling system are used, which replace the traditional thematic sections and is undertaken by the news publishers. Only El País extends this aspect to the management of its presence in social networks through an algorithm developed from its operational unit, EPET (El País Técnico Team).

41From this point of view, we notice a growing reduction in the traditional weight of the journalists in the overall production of news, being relegated by information and communications technology professionals.

42Two. In all the cases examined, the Business relationship with the audiences is based on the use of algorithms applied to the respective facets of analysis of their global traffic, individualized identification of the content subscribers and sending of all kinds of business promotions based on the thematic interests of the subscribers.

43Amongst the possibilities that this angle implies in the case of individualized identification are : the account creation that combines personal identification and email address, the account creation that combines personal identification and email address and raises a combined action with the data of the Internet user in Facebook/LinkedIn, the creation of an account that requires an email address and proposes a combined action with the Internet user’s data on Facebook/Twitter or even the combination of geolocation algorithms that offers personalized access to content and the creation of an account that requires an email address and proposes a combined action with the Internet user’s data on Facebook / Google +.

44Three. None of the newspapers uses algorithms for the management of their contextual advertising, with the exception of El País, which does so through an externalized algorithm whose development is owned by the cXense company.

45This means that nowadays a functionality like Google Address, created in 2003, is a true market standard for information companies and that they are not trying to replace it.

46Four. None of the cybermedia examined uses algorithms for facets such as the generation of journalistic content through robots, the purchase of online traffic or the generation of branded content. In the case of this last aspect, all of them have staff dedicated to the development of content in collaboration with advertisers.

47However, we consider that this situation could change in the short term, mainly in the generation of journalistic content and perhaps in the generation of branded content.

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Référence électronique

David Parra, Concha Edo et Almudena Rodríguez, « The responsibility of news organizations in the use of algorithms », Netcom [En ligne], 33-1/2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 09 septembre 2019, consulté le 16 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/netcom/4061 ; DOI : 10.4000/netcom.4061

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Auteurs

David Parra

Professor of Journalism, Facultad de Ciencias de la Información, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, davidparra@ccinf.ucm.es

Concha Edo

Professor of Journalism, Facultad de Ciencias de la Información, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, conchaed@ccinf.ucm.es

Almudena Rodríguez

Collaborator of Chair of Journalism, Facultad de Ciencias de la Información, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, almudena_rs@hotmail.com

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Licence Creative Commons
Netcom – Réseaux, communication et territoires est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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