Facebook sent ripples through the publishing world Monday when CEO Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea of creating a dedicated tab for news and hinted the company might pay publishers for their content.
Publishers would welcome another source of revenue, as Facebook and Google are gobbling up most of the digital advertising pie. But given the fact Facebook has steadily cut the amount of news content from the News Feed over the years, publishers reacted with measured optimism to downright skepticism.
“I think it’s really heartening, depending of course on the details,” said Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, whose CEO, Jonah Peretti, is among industry leaders including Rupert Murdoch who have called for Facebook to share more revenue with publishers. “We do share an interest with the platforms in making quality journalism available to our shared audience, and it sounds like this program could reflect that.”
It wasn’t lost on observers that news of the plan comes just as Facebook rival Apple announced a news subscription bundle that would share revenue with publishers; and Facebook has been battling a crackdown in Germany over how it gathers data, among other bad press.
Discussions with publishers and experts are starting now, but Facebook has been working on the initiative internally for some time. The hope is to have something ready to go by the end of the year, according to a knowledgeable source. Facebook hopes to serve a variety of publishers this way, from independent to corporate, local to national, digital to traditional.
Facebook execs have hinted at the idea for a while, publishing insiders said. One news exec recalled a conversation with Facebook execs in which they floated the idea of paying for publishers’ regular news content, as opposed to something bespoke like a show for the Watch video section, but didn’t give any details.
The initiative raises lots of questions
Local publishers, whose outlets are among the most vulnerable in the news industry, have generally been more optimistic than national ones about their relationship with Facebook.
“We have a very productive and collaborative working relationship with Facebook and we’re delighted that they continue to explore new approaches to support the sustainability of local news,” said Andrew Pergam, the vice president of news operations and new ventures at the local-news publisher McClatchy.
Among the many questions publishers are asking about the Facebook initiative are:
- Who will Facebook reward, and what criteria will it use?
- How much money will it dole out, on what basis, and for how long?
- Will there be traffic guarantees?
- Will news be removed altogether from the News Feed?
- Will the Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp be part of the initiative?
- Will Facebook share audience data and in such a way that publishers can include it in their audited traffic?
Others have disagreed with the idea of publishers getting paid directly by the tech platforms.
Wired’s editor-in-chief, Nick Thompson, warned last year of the risks of getting carriage fees from Facebook. “On one hand, it is recommended that Facebook pays media content for their content,” he said at the time. “Facebook has actively taken away most of the ad market. On the other hand, is it good for the media industry to be getting checks from Facebook? Then what happens to our independence?”
Dependence with compensation would be better than dependence without compensation, though, said David Chavern, the president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing publishers from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to regional and community newspapers. Chavern has argued that if Facebook wants quality content, it has to pay for it.
Facebook’s News Feed has become bloated
Word of the new initiative comes as Facebook’s News Feed has become bloated and its use has flattened, leading Facebook to decrease the amount of news it runs through the feed in favor of posts from friends and family. That has caused some publishers to see sharp falloffs in traffic and even fold up shop. Facebook has also experimented with putting news in a separate feed, but it abandoned that test. Some like Chavern predict Facebook will break it up eventually.
Facebook has a mixed relationship with publishers. In addition to cutting their referral traffic and eating a big chunk of the digital ad market, Facebook hasn’t delivered publishers meaningful revenue from their video content. For a time, it required that they be subject to Facebook’s political-ad policy that Facebook enacted in response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook started letting subscription publishers sell subs through the platform, but its financial impact has been limited.
Even seemingly well-meaning efforts have had mixed or little impact. Facebook began testing a “breaking news label” with more than 100 publishers last year and expanded it to more publishers in November. Publishers are allowed to use the label once a day.
Echobox, a company that has artificial intelligence that publishers use to post their content to social media, researched the impact of the breaking-news test. It found that stories with the breaking-news label on average received 51% more traffic than comparable shares without the label. But overall it found that publications using the label typically saw flat or even declining traffic and engagement because shares performed worse than normal when the label was used.
Others wondered about the impact of sticking news in a separate feed on Facebook.
“I’m not sure relegating news to some separate tab within Facebook would make much of a dent,” said Matt Karolian, the director of news initiatives at The Boston Globe. “People generally use Facebook for the News Feed. If Facebook really wants to make a dent in terms of serving the world up high-quality news, they are going to have to take a truly different and innovative approach, not just hang a tab off the side of the Facebook app.”