When Live-Streaming the News, Who’s Working for Whom?

Last month, from the floor of the House of Representatives, Twitter’s Periscope app and Facebook Live cemented their place within the news media ecosystem. Exactly where that place is, however, is up for debate.

As discussed in a previous post here, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) had ordered the cameras in the House chamber used to feed C-Span turned off, just as Democrats, frustrated over the majority’s legislative stonewalling, were staging a sit-in on the floor. Rather than simply going off us-senate-debates-defense-authorization-bill-video-c-span-org_758399the air, however, some Democratic members then whipped out their phones and started live-streaming their protest using Periscope and Facebook Live, in violation of House rules that prohibit the use of electronic devices on the floor. Here in Washington, the live-streams quickly became the talk of the town on social media working 24/7.

Frustrated by its inability to cover breaking news on its own turf, C-Span broke with protocol and began re-broadcasting the Periscope and Facebook Live streams. That got the attention of other news organizations, especially the three big cable news networks, which also began picking up the members’ streams, turning what might have been a minor political skirmish into a major national story.

For Periscope and Facebook Live it was a breakthrough moment. Not only did the episode showcase their potential as tools for both news gathering and dissemination, the House members’ use of the apps, and especially C-Span’s decision to defy the Speaker by re-broadcasting the live streams, became part of the story itself, drawing huge national attention to the live-streaming apps just as Twitter and Facebook are each making a major push to become the dominant live-streaming platform.

But it wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of the cable networks. And that raises questions about what the nature of the symbiosis between the mobile streaming platforms and commercial news organizations will be in the future.

There were no commercial relationships between Twitter or Facebook and C-Span or the other networks at the time of the Democratic sit-in that would have covered what happened. As it was, both sides got something of value out of the exchange. Twitter and Facebook got valuable exposure and validation of the live-streaming strategies, while the networks got free live video of a breaking news event from a place where their own cameras are not normally allowed. It was a win all around, except perhaps for Speaker Ryan.

But such a like for like exchange won’t always obtain. Facebook, in fact, is currently paying a number of news publishers to create content for Facebook Live as it tries to build momentum for the platform. Surely that won’t always be necessary, however. At some point, Facebook will decide that Live has enough internal momentum that it no longer will need to pay for content. What then becomes the relationship between Facebook and commercial news publishers.

If the publishers are going to continue to invest in creating live video without being paid for the content they will need some other way to monetize it. At that point, it becomes a question of the publishers needing Facebook’s platform more than Facebook needs their content.

Moreover, while both Periscope and Facebook make their live-streams freely available to anyone who wants to view them, their respective terms of service stipulate that the platforms own the copyright on the content that’s posted to them, unless otherwise specificed. So in theory at least, Twitter and Facebook could demand payment for re-broadcast of live streams produced by their millions of “citizen journalists.”

All parties are clearly still trying to figure out what their respective roles will be. For next week’s Republican National Convention and the upcoming Democratic convention, for instance, Twitter has chosen to formally partner exclusively with CBS to live-stream the events. Unlike what happened in the House, however, in this case Twitter will be picking up CBS’ online feed from CBSN. Notably, Twitter will also make the feed available to people not currently signed up on the platform.

Facebook, on the other hand, is partnering with 21 different news organizations to live-stream the conventions, including CNN, Fox News C-Span and the New York Times. Unlike its current arrangements with the publishers, however, Facebook won’t be paying them for the content they create at the conventions. Instead, it will make it suite of live-streaming tools available to its partners, including a Facebook Lounge they can use as an on-site studio.

In a reversal of the House sit-in situation, C-Span will use Facebook Live to broadcast the proceedings.

“We make the tools pretty straightforward for people to use them on their own,” Facebook’s head of government and politics outreach Crystal Patterson told Politico. “We shouldn’t need a whole sort of hand in hand engagement to get good content.”

All this, of course, is wholly apart from the separate but related question of what Facebook and Twitter ultimately want their relationship with breaking news events to be. As became horrifyingly clear with the recently fatal shootings by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile outside of St. Paul, Minn., the near universal capability to broadcast live, from anywhere, with a few taps of a cellphone can quickly turn into an ethical, legal, and moral quagmire, for the streaming platforms, for the news organizations confronted with the raw footage, and for the people involved.

In the Philando Castile case, in particular, where is fiance, Diamond Reynolds used Facebook Live to deliver an extraordinary and disturbing live stream and real-time narration of the shooting’s immediate aftermath, the broadcast again became both the source of the news and part of the news itself, creating a very disorienting psychic, ethical and journalistic dynamic.

Should things go seriously south next week at the RNC in Cleveland, where tension is already building, we may be confronted with those questions again. How everyone answers those questions will surely obviously influence any other arrangements they may make.

I don’t agree that the growing use of live-streaming apps represents an existential threat to traditional live news organizations, as Farhad Manjoo suggested in the New York Times this week. The two enterprises have too much to gain from each other. But the terms of their engagement are still being negotiated.