Home / Tech / Facebook said it might start paying for content, sending ripples through the publishing world. Here's what industry insiders are saying.

Facebook said it might start paying for content, sending ripples through the publishing world. Here's what industry insiders are saying.

mark zuckerberg

  • Facebook floated the idea of creating a dedicated tab for news, sending ripples through the publishing world.
  • Some publishing execs expressed cautious optimism, aware that Facebook has had a fraught relationship with the publishing industry, and there were few details available.
  • Some insiders have warned that depending on Facebook for revenue will cost publishers their independence.

Facebook sent ripples through the publishing world today when CEO Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea of creating a dedicated tab for news and hinted it might pay publishers for their content.

Publishers would welcome another source of revenue as Facebook and Google are gobbling up most of the digital ad pie. But given Facebook has steadily cut the amount of news content from the news feed over the years, publishers reacted with measured optimism.

“I think it’s really heartening, depending of course on the details,” said Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed, whose CEO Jonah Peretti is among industry leaders including Rupert Murdoch who’s 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.”

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 ones.

Facebook execs have hinted at the idea for a while, publishing insiders said. One news exec recalled a conversation with Facebook execs where they floated the idea of paying for publishers’ regular news content, as opposed to something bespoke like a show for Watch, Facebook’s 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, VP of news operations and new ventures at 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 and on what basis and for how long?
  • Will there be traffic guarantees?
  • Will news be removed altogether from the news feed?
  • Will 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?

Read more: Here are all the major publishers in Apple’s new subscription service, Apple News Plus

Others have disagreed with the idea of publishers getting paid directly by the tech platforms.

Wired editor in chief Nick Thompson for one 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. Facebook has actively taken away most of the ad market,” he said at the time. “On the other hand, is it good for the media industry to be getting checks from Facebook? Then what happens to our independence?”

David Chavern, President & CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing publishers from The Wall Street Journal and New York Times to regional and community newspapers, argued that if Facebook wants quality content, it has to pay for it, though.

“Dependence and compensation would be better than dependence without compensation,” he said.

Facebook’s news feed has become bloated

Word of the new initiative comes as the 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’s 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 then 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 ads 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 AI 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 get on average 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 perform worse than normal when the label is used.

Others wondered about the impact of relegating news to 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, director of news initiatives at The Boston Globe. “People generally use Facebook for the newsfeed. 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.”

SEE ALSO: Facebook’s shift to ephemeral messaging raises big questions for its advertising business and could trigger a move into one-to-one marketing

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