- Facebook is moving ahead with plans to create a dedicated news section that publishers could get paid for.
- The social network has been meeting with publishers and hiring to support the section and still plans to roll it out later this year.
- According to a publisher source, Mark Zuckerberg believes a news tab could draw a whopping 15% of Facebook users.
- Facebook has made the section enticing, but will face skepticism from publishers that have been burned by the platform’s frequent strategy changes of the past.
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Facebook is moving ahead with plans to create dedicated news section that publishers could get paid for. Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea earlier this year to create a place for users who want more news. Facebook has since begun talking to publishers and hiring to support it.
Facebook execs have been holding one-on-one meetings to get feedback on the news tab and other products from publishers that have shown interest in being early to try out new Facebook products in the past. The goal is to roll out the tab by the end of the year. The discussions are being led by Shelley Venus and Anne Kornblut, two Facebook executives who have news backgrounds and are respected in the news industry.
Facebook is also advertising on LinkedIn for a member of its Media Partnerships team that works on products like Facebook Watch, the video section that includes news shows from ABC News and Univision in addition to entertainment shows; and the forthcoming news tab. The person will focus on “news acquisition efforts and general deal flow” in Media Partnerships, be “responsible for the end-to-end negotiations with partners” and work to “drive meaningful value to media partners.”
Read more: CNN explains why it’s pulling its high-performing Anderson Cooper news show off Facebook Watch
‘A better environment for news’
Facebook doesn’t have a product it’s showing around, but at this point, the section is expected to feature publishers’ links, rather than video or original content that publishers would have to make exclusively for the section, which would make it easier to get publishers to participate.
“This will be a better environment for news,” said Jeff Jarvis, a City University of New York journalism professor who’s familiar with the plan.
Other ways the tab will appeal to publishers is that it’s also likely to offer some level of personalization, some light oversight by an editorial team, and involve payments to publishers, according to people familiar with Facebook’s thinking, though the details haven’t been shared with publishers.
Based on conversations with Facebook, some publishers expect the platform to share ad revenue from their stories and let them keep all associated subscription revenue, in keeping with Facebook’s past practice. That could help get prestigious, subscription-driven publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post on board.
Facebook sent a team of 10 to a meeting with ABC News and shared a detailed roadmap for the product, indicating a high level of deliberation, said Colby Smith, SVP of content & partnerships for ABC News. Facebook execs asked a lot of questions suggesting they wanted the section to have human involvement, not just be algorithm-driven, he said.
“They definitely want another crack at being a meaningful business partner for publishers,” Smith said.
“They seem open-eyed about the challenges: Not just the content but what the news is, how you balance hard news and human interest stories in the same way publishers do,” said another news executive who’s been briefed on the plan.
A news-only tab could make a lot of sense
On the surface, it makes sense to have a separate tab for news junkies, because while Facebook has cut the amount of news it sends through its news feed, news still forms part of the conversation ecosystem that Facebook wants to be part of. Facebook has changed strategies over the years to promote and pay for news and has said it wants to elevate quality news on the platform, but has struggled with how to judge quality.
Meanwhile, rival platform Apple News launched a subscription program that shares revenue with publishers, right around the time Zuckerberg floated the news tab idea.
A news tab featuring established news outlets could help Facebook defend against criticism over its problems with fake news spreading on the platform and accusations of ideological bias, from both the left and right, in the news it promotes in the feed.
So will Facebook get the publishers it needs to participate, when it’s burned publishers in the past with multiple strategy changes and choking off their traffic from the platform?
Facebook believes it can create a huge audience just for news
One big question is whether Facebook can get a meaningful audience to the section in the first place after it struggled to create a strong viewing habit with the Watch section. But an exec who’s familiar with the plans said Zuckerberg believes a news tab could draw 15% of Facebook users, which could be huge.
A lot of publishers are strapped for revenue and likely wouldn’t turn away any source of funding as Facebook and Google eat up most of the digital ad pie. Publishers with an ad-supported model that still lean heavily on social platforms for awareness seem more likely to benefit from a news tab.
There are still many questions, though. Subscription publishers will want to know if Facebook will preference free over paywalled content. There are questions around how much control publishers will get over what stories get seen and how Facebook will decide who gets to be in the tab. A publication like The Washington Post might be glad to share a tab with the likes of The Wall Street Journal, but what about Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller? Facebook in the past has sought to put the burden on users to answer the question of what “quality news” is, and this time, has been putting the question to publishers.
A publisher whose company has been briefed on the news tab worried Facebook will give space to heavily ideological publishers in an attempt to be balanced. “If you decide fairness has to be a quantity game, you end up with a false equivalency.”
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