It’s an un­wanted man­tle for the head of a plat­form that in­flu­ences what 1.7B peo­ple see every day — just don’t com­pare him to Ru­pert Mur­doch

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TECH - @DawnC331 Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY

Meet the 21st cen­tury’s re­luc­tant me­dia baron: Mark Zucker­berg.

His Face­book ex­erts the kind of in­flu­ence over the me­dia land­scape that would be the envy of moguls of old, say, a Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst or Joseph Pulitzer. The so­cial me­dia ser­vice he launched a dozen years ago makes in­vis­i­ble de­ci­sions about what ar­ti­cles, im­ages and videos its 1.7 bil­lion global users see.

The ex­tent of its ed­i­to­rial clout came into sharp re­lief when a global protest erupted over Face­book’s de­ci­sion to re­move the iconic photo of a naked 9-yearold girl flee­ing na­palm bombs dur­ing the Viet­nam War. The ser­vice has strict guide­lines on nu­dity; what its staff didn’t take into ac­count was the his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance of the photo.

It’s un­likely the last time its ed­i­to­rial judg­ment, an amal­ga­ma­tion of al­go­rithms and hu­man re­view­ers, gets re­buked for a bad call, forc­ing it to wres­tle with the same eth­i­cal ques­tions news­rooms have for years.

“They in­creas­ingly are de­ter­min­ing how news gets dis­sem­i­nated, even made, in terms of how you write head­lines, how you write ar­ti­cles,” said Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor Jonathan Taplin, au­thor of the forthcoming book Move Fast and Break Things.

“I would ar­gue that they’re the most im­por­tant news or­ga­ni­za­tion in the world.”

Zucker­berg shrugs off the man­tle of me­dia mogul.

“We’re a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, we’re not a me­dia com­pany,” Zucker­berg said in re­marks last month to Ital­ian univer­sity stu­dents. “When you think about a me­dia com­pany, you have peo­ple who are pro­duc­ing con­tent, who are edit­ing con­tent. That’s not us. We’re a tech­nol­ogy com­pany. We build tools. We do not pro­duce any of the con­tent.”

The re­al­ity may be more nu­anced, based on con­ver­sa­tions with those who know Zucker­berg or have stud­ied the com­pany.

Zucker­berg, who cre­ated Face­book’s engi­neer­ing-driven cul­ture, doesn’t look in the mir­ror and see a younger ver­sion of Aus­tralian-born me­dia mogul Ru­pert Mur­doch.

“It’s anath­ema to him to be lumped in with (Vi­a­com’s) Sum­ner Red­stone or (21st Cen­tury Fox’s) Ru­pert Mur­doch,” said An­to­nio Gar­cia Martinez, a for­mer Face­book ex­ec­u­tive and au­thor of the mem­oirs Chaos Mon­keys. “He has to deal with them. He does not see him­self like that at all.”

Wall Street prizes tech com­pa­nies over me­dia con­glom­er­ates and re­wards Sil­i­con Val­ley’s in­no­va­tors with a higher price-toearn­ings ra­tio, a cal­cu­la­tion made by di­vid­ing a com­pany’s cur­rent stock price by its earn­ings per share. Face­book has a price-toearn­ings ra­tio of 61.8, based on past earn­ings. By this mea­sure, it’s far more in de­mand than a pure-play me­dia com­pany such as Fox, with a P/E ra­dio of 16.9.

“So if Zucker­berg wants to de­flate (Face­book’s) value by like two-thirds, then by all means, be a me­dia com­pany,” said Roger Ent­ner, founder and lead an­a­lyst with Re­con An­a­lyt­ics.

Some in­dus­try watch­ers say Face­book has more in com­mon with a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany such as AT&T or Ver­i­zon Wire­less than it does with a tra­di­tional me­dia com­pany such as CBS. Its myr­iad plat­forms, in­clud­ing mo­bile ap­pli­ca­tions Face­book Mes­sen­ger and What­sApp, con­nect a bil­lion peo­ple a month.

It even had am­bi­tious plans to beam In­ter­net ser­vice to sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa via a satel­lite that was de­stroyed this month when a SpaceX rocket blew up in Florida.

“They’re clearly a com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­form,” said John Black­ledge, a Cowen and Co. In­ter­net an­a­lyst and me­dia ob­server.

Face­book sees its role in de­ter­min­ing what users see as less an ex­er­cise in ed­i­to­rial dis­cre­tion than a bal­anc­ing act, between en­abling ex­pres­sion and pro­tect­ing its com­mu­nity. “These are dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions and we don’t al­ways get it right,” Face­book Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg said.

“We’re a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, we’re not a me­dia com­pany . ... We build tools. We do not pro­duce any of the con­tent.” Face­book found­ing fa­ther Mark Zucker­berg


Dawn Ch­mielewski


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