Just after Apple revealed its grand plan to ‘save’ the media with its News+ offering, Facebook returns to the fold. This week, The Wall Street Journal reported the tech company is in conversations with publishers to relaunch yet another Facebook News Tab. The Menlo Park-based company will pay publishers as much as $3 million to license their content on the app. News outlets should be wary. With this initiative, Facebook could curate and induce publishers to produce certain types of stories, while controlling the distribution of that content. Knights in white armor are rarely born and bred in Silicon Valley.
As of now, publishers like Disney-owned ABC News, Bloomberg, News Corp-owned The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post seem to be contemplating the deal. If it came through, Facebook would include the paid articles in a new news section that would be launched by the end of this year. As reported by The Verge, the deals could last as long as three years, and the publishers would decide whether users get to see full articles or just headlines. Facebook is even emphasizing that those articles could redirect traffic to the news outlets’ websites, in contrast to the recent Apple News Plus proposal. Apple, with its magazine subscription service, aims to retain readers on the platform, instead of redirecting them to the publisher. Apple News Plus will keep 50% of the revenues, and the rest will be distributed among publishers, depending on the readers’ attention (read Magazines can benefit from ‘Apple’s brand.)
Facebook’s deal seems enticing—the company is willing to pay for content and redirect traffic. But is it that good?
First, Facebook’s influence over readers today is more dubious than three years ago. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, the misinformation campaigns since 2016, and the sheer mistrust users now have of Facebook is making the social media platform less relevant for publishers. According to Pew Research, 43% of US adults still get their news from Facebook, although many mistrust the platform. A survey conducted in 2018 revealed that 74% of respondents had either modified their Facebook privacy settings, taken a break from checking the platform for weeks, or deleted the app altogether. Still, Facebook remains as a valuable distribution channel for the news industry, making the licensing proposal attractive.
Second, the tech company has been trying to strike the perfect partnership with media outlets for years. But its proposals have been numerous, erratic and unreliable—for example, the pivot to video. In 2017 Facebook announced the future of the content industries was video. News companies invested in video designers, cameras, and marketing campaigns to publish their news on video. Now it’s clear that, although important, video was not the answer to everything. And it is more expensive than other reporting formats. With this initiative, Facebook could push publishers to produce certain types of stories, use specific formats and shift coverage, as Emily Bell writes for the Columbia Journalism Review. News outlets should be wary of Facebook’s whims and its capacity to focus.
Third, the fact that Facebook will choose the news displayed on the app means the company will have editorial power. The social media service has long claimed it is only a platform, not a news outlet. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Facebook and all other platforms are not liable for the content published in it. However, this new responsibility may change it (read Facebook’s ban on extremist figures is not enough to top fake news; we need more.) Moreover, editorializing means that Facebook will distinguish and choose from the different outlets that enter the deal. At the same time, the tech company will control distribution and delivery. With the growing tendency of staying with the headline and imagining the full content, users will still get their news from Facebook, not the Times, the Post, or the Journal. Papers won’t have the means to build trust and loyalty among their readers; Facebook will. Mark Thompson, chief executive of the New York Times Company, told Reuters in an interview: “We tend to be quite leery about the idea of almost habituating people to find our journalism somewhere else.” He added: “We’re also generically worried about our journalism being scrambled in a kind of Magimix with everyone’ else’s journalism.”
Finally, Facebook’s most substantial revenues come from advertising, which means it takes both eyeballs and ad dollars away from newspapers. Zuckerberg’s company captures 20.6% of US digital advertising through public posts and community messages. Although Facebook seems sympathetic to news outlets, they must still be wary of the company—it remains its rival; not only in terms of revenue but of the audience. If Facebook keeps controlling content distribution, they will keep getting the largest piece of the advertising pie. Readers will go to Facebook and see the ads there. As long as distribution remains on the tech company’s hands, publishers’ fate will remain at the whims of an algorithm they do not control. As Frank Bennack, executive vice-chairman of Hearst Corporation, said in a presentation at IESE in New York: “Content is king, but distribution is King Kong.”
Although this licensing deal seems better than the previous Facebook proposals (they are willing to pay,) publishers should remember their torrid affair with tech companies. Silicon Valley usually over-promises and under-delivers. Sure, they want to save journalism. Who doesn’t? But what they really desire is to stay relevant and improve their bottom line. If publishers enter the agreement with Facebook, they should do it with eyes wide open. Facebook is the newest publisher in the building; it takes the revenues and wants to recover its prestige. There may be short term solutions in Silicon Valley, but there are no knights in shining armor.