Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg extended a peace offering—and cash—to media on Friday as the social network opened a news section that pays publishers for content. Facebook News is viewed by many in the industry as a positive step toward restoring value to journalism after Facebook and other digital platforms ate into publishers’ businesses for years.
On Friday, Zuckerberg sat down with News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson at The Paley Center for Media in New York City to show off the new partnership. “What took you so long?” Thomson asked at the start of the conversation. It was a lighthearted dig, but Thomson’s News Corp. has been critical of Facebook in the past, and its founder Rupert Murdoch has been one of the most insistent media voices calling for Zuckerberg to pay for journalism consumed on his platform.
Zuckerberg said that “it was just kind of this odd dilemma” between giving users what they mostly want, which is information about friends and family, versus providing a platform for news.
“This is going to be the first time ever that there is a dedicated space in the app that is focused on high-quality journalism,” Zuckerberg said.
The “high-quality” bar is subjective, though. Even as Zuckerberg was unveiling Facebook News, critics already were questioning the inclusion of Breitbart, a self-proclaimed alt-right source. “You want to include a breadth of content in there to make sure that all the different topics can be covered,” Zuckerberg said.
Publishers have been working with Facebook for months to launch the news service, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg News, Meredith Corp., Condé Nast, Hearst and others.
Facebook’s news initiative is the latest in a long line of products that have been tested by the social network to improve media fortunes on the platform. Over the years, Facebook has built fast-loading Instant Articles; a “suggested videos” tab, which highlighted videos from prominent publishing partners; and Watch, the YouTube video rival.
Facebook has proved frustrating for many media companies, despite all the products. Publishers have been critical of Facebook, Google, Apple and others for making billions of dollars from services that thrive on their content without sharing much of the spoils.
Here’s what we know about Facebook’s latest news product:
Look no further than Zuckerberg’s interrogation on Capitol Hill this week to figure out why Facebook is searching for goodwill anywhere it can get it. The hearing was ostensibly about Libra, a cryptocurrency passion-project from Facebook that needs the support of Congress.
The House hearing, however, became an opportunity for critical lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to confront Zuckerberg on all manner of topics, including how the social network handles fake news and lies posted to the site. The news hub is partly a response to the proliferation of inflammatory political disinformation on Facebook.
“We’re partnering with a lot of folks to build a news product that’s supporting high-quality journalism,” Zuckerberg told lawmakers.
Facebook News will host about 200 media properties, and many of the companies will be paid directly, although Facebook has declined to release the terms of the deals.
One publishing executive, who is participating, says that Facebook is paying $1 million to $3 million a year, depending on the media company. In all, Facebook could spend more than $100 million on the project, this executive says.
“It’s free money,” the executive says. “No one’s going to turn that down, unless they are taking some kind of moral stance against Facebook.”
Zuckerberg did say that the initiative was a “multiyear” financial commitment. Facebook has 1.6 billion daily users and Zuckerberg said that if even a fraction of them show up to the news tab, it could be a “meaningful” business opportunity for publishers.
It could get to 20 million to 30 million readers within a few years, Zuckerberg estimated.
So far, the tab is only available to a limited number of readers in the U.S., but will roll out more broadly in the coming weeks and months.
On Friday, The New York Times confirmed its participation in the program. The deal signals a new spirit of cooperation between the two companies that have had somewhat of an adversarial relationship in the past. The Times has aggressively covered the rise of platforms and their dangers to privacy and democracy.
“Facebook is taking a welcome first step toward recognizing the differential value of New York Times journalism," a Times spokeswoman said in an e-mail statement. "Facebook News should make quality news easier to find in the Facebook environment and easier to distinguish from other forms of content."
Catherine Levene, president and chief digital officer at Meredith Digital says that Facebook News offers two opportunities: it will link back to publishers’ websites, where they can serve ads to visitors; and there is direct revenue from Facebook. “The business model works for us,” Levene says.
Levene would not disclose the terms of Meredith’s arrangement, however.
“It’s important for us at Meredith to be in an environment that respects high-quality content,” Levene says during a recent phone interview, “and to work with a company that can support companies like ours that create that content.”
One of the features of the news tab is an authentication process where subscribers can sign into news sites while on Facebook. This connection will help publishers make the link to readers who are on the social network, and open more possibilities to understand the audience and their habits. The data could make for better advertising, though Thomson noted that the tracking would be done with the consent of the reader.
“Our impression is that we will have more data about our readers coming from Facebook,” Thomson said.
Not everyone was convinced by Facebook’s publishing program, fearing that it could just lead more readers to rely on the social network for news. “The Facebook news tab is a shiny new object to distract from the damage Zuckerberg has done to journalism, and a ploy to steal journalists' content without compensating us,” said Laura Bassett, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, a group that has been highly critical of Facebook, in an e-mail statement. “This initiative will only further his agenda to derail the journalism industry, so that Facebook can be the bearer of all the news.”
In today’s announcement, Facebook said it surveyed more than 100,000 people who said the social network was under-serving news related to health, entertainment, sports and business. That could signal the news hub will promote more lifestyle-focused fare instead of harder news and politically divisive stories.
“They’re going to be selective about what content they put inside the news tab,” says Sachin Kamdar, CEO of Parse.ly, a publishing technology firm that works with media companies to measure audiences on platforms.
There will still be timely and local news, according to Facebook’s announcement today. “Facebook News will feature a wide range of content across four categories of publishers: general, topical, diverse and local news,” Facebook said in the news announcement.
One of the driving forces behind the news hub is to present a selection of news that has been vetted more closely than the stories that appear in News Feed. Facebook hired a team of journalists to hand-select the articles that will appear in a “Today’s Stories” section. Facebook said the team would be better-equipped to identify the best, original reporting from publications, which is often the most valuable content. “This team is independent, free from editorial intervention by anyone at the company,” Facebook said.
Facebook News has been compared to Apple News, which is also a highly selective platform run by editors.
Facebook’s algorithm will partially personalize the hub, however, so each user sees a smattering of stories tailored to their tastes.
“Regarding personalization, publishers worry that machine learning has limits and they’re right,” Facebook said. “We have progress to make before we can rely on technology alone to provide a quality news destination.”
Updated 8.15 a.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 with the New York Times confirmation.
Updated 4.30 p.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 with reporting from Zuckerberg's appearance in New York.
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