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Facebook announces News Tab launch and remuneration as UK legislative agenda progresses

By L. Carol Christopher

INMA

Pleasant Hill, California, USA

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Just months after threatening to stop news sharing in Australia because of pending legislation, Facebook announced on the last day of November — in the face of pending legislation — that it is not only launching Facebook News in the UK this month, but it will pay some publishers for some content. 

Facebook’s Jesper Doub, director of News Partnerships, announced in late November the company is stepping up its investment in news in the UK with:

  1. The launch of Facebook News, a dedicated space for national and local news, starting this month.
  2. Payment to publishers for content that is not already on the platform.
  3. Help for publishers in reaching new audiences. (Facebook says it has found from its U.S. Facebook News success that “more than 95% of the traffic Facebook News delivers to publishers is new audiences that have not interacted with those news outlets in the past.”)
  4. Bringing more advertising and subscription opportunities.
Jesper Doub, director of News Partnerships at Facebook.
Jesper Doub, director of News Partnerships at Facebook.

“For many people, dominant online platforms have become the Internet, or at the very least the principal gateways to it,” Robert Hahn, director of rights and licensing at Guardian News & Media, told INMA. “Data from UK regulator Ofcom shows that half of adults in the UK now use social media to keep up with the latest news … . This means that dominant online platforms now play a key role in our information ecosystem. They have also become unavoidable trading partners for news media publishers.”

Hahn continued: “Quality journalism is a highly valuable asset upon which the large tech platforms depend for user engagement. Entering a commercial licensing agreement with Facebook will enable News Tab users to access Guardian journalism, whilst also supporting our editorial and commercial goals: increasing the reach of our journalism, increasing traffic on our platforms through which we can increase our reader revenues, and increasing licensing revenues.”

Remuneration and terms 

The BBC noted that Facebook czar Mark Zuckerberg said as recently as 2018 that he would not pay publishers for content. 

While the deals between the companies and Facebook are private, so “it is not known how lucrative they could be for struggling news outlets,” according to the BBC, Hahn elaborated on the GNM’s agreement:

“In line with major publishers in the U.S. and UK markets, and in common with established business practice at GNM to seek opportunity for our content on third-party platforms, we recently completed a commercial licensing agreement with Facebook. This will see a small selection of Guardian journalism  made available to users of the News Tab each day.”

The details are confidential, Hahn said, but “Facebook has agreed to pay GNM a multi-million dollar amount to license headlines and previews of articles. It is not at the scale of the windfall tax proposed by the NUJ,” he said, “but it is welcome and we continue to press for meaningful regulation of global tech platforms which is vital and long overdue.” 

Hahn also told INMA that the multi-year arrangement has options to extend, as well as “renegotiation and exit clauses to cover a variety of scenarios significant to GNM.” 

As the Guardian wrote:

“Facebook declined to comment on the amount of money it is putting into the scheme … some publishers are privately expecting to make millions of pounds a year from the multi-year deals they have signed with the social network. As a result, news industry sources estimated that the total annual bill for Facebook is likely to run into the tens of millions in the UK alone, making a difference to the finances of struggling news outlets. ‘It’s an extremely large investment and it’s something we’ve done over multiple years,’ said Sarah Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships in northern Europe.”

Facebook responds to the UK’s Code of Conduct 

This launch is coming in the face of legislation that would subject tech giants to a code of conduct in the UK. Its key points are:

  1. The government will set up a Digital Markets Unit to oversee a pro-competition regime for platforms including those funded by digital advertising, such as Google and Facebook.
  2. The new statutory code of conduct will mean consumers will be given more choice and control over how their data is used, and small businesses will be able to better promote their products online.
  3. The code will support the sustainability of the news publishing industry, helping rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms.

Commentators from major industry observers also saw the move as a response to the pending legislation. 

Eleven news publishers are first on the list of UK media companies to be paid by Facebook.
Eleven news publishers are first on the list of UK media companies to be paid by Facebook.

The BBC offered this analysis: “This new move is a loud gesture to British regulators, saying Facebook will invest in public goods such as journalism, provided the regulatory environment is favourable.” 

The same day, The Verge mentioned noted: “The announcement comes as Facebook is facing a new regulator in the UK in the form of the Digital Markets Unit,” the regulator whose responsibility it is to write and enforce a new code of practice for tech giants operating there.

Axios said this matters because “The creation of Facebook’s dedicated News Tab has helped the company appease regulator demands globally for more equitable relationships with news publishers.”

History 

There is a long history between news publishers and Facebook that has sometimes led to animosity if not tears on the part of news publishers who became invested in Facebook promises that haven’t always lived up to expectations. 

Facebook has been touting payments to news publishers for more than a year, announcing in August 2019 that it had offered a handful of US publishers up to US$3 million a year each with a three-year contract to license news. 

In late October, 2019, Facebook announced Facebook News would be available to a subset of people in the United States, with a nod toward the critical role journalism plays in democracy. Initially, original local reporting from 10 major metro areas across the United States was showcased, with a promise to include local news from more than 6,000 U.S. towns and cities in the months to come.

Then in June, 2020, TechCrunch reported that the Facebook News “dedicated section devoted to news” was going live to all users in the U.S., and, as promised, has incorporated local news in addition to “more than 200 general news publishers,” but noted that while users can react and share stories, they cannot comment.

Who’s in, who’s not 

The first group of UK publishers to be featured includes:

  • Archant
  • Condé Nast
  • The Economist
  • ESI Media
  • Guardian Media Group
  • Hearst
  • Iliffe
  • JPI Media
  • Midland News Association.
  • Reach
  • STV

That list will bring titles such as The London Evening Standard, The Independent, The Economist, The Guardian, Liverpool Echo, Manchester Evening News, The Mirror, The Scotsman, STV, and the Yorkshire Post, and an assortment of what Facebook’s announcement calls “lifestyle brands” to British coffee tables. The Verge mentioned that Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and Daily Mail owner DMGT are notably absent from the start-up list. 

Internationally, that list of who is in and who’s not is fluid. 

In August, 2020, TechCrunch reported Facebook News would expand beyond U.S. borders to the UK, Germany, France, India, and Brazil within six months to a year.

Australia was initially on the list, but was quietly dropped virtually overnight concurrent with legislative developments in that country. That was the same month The Verge reported Facebook may block news from being shared on its platforms in Australia because “proposed rules to force tech platforms to share ad revenues with news publishers are ‘not workable.’” 

Will Easton, Facebook’s managing director inAustralia and New Zealand, wrote in a blog post that “it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.” 

(Google did not respond well, either, publishing an open letter about the proposed law and warning in a homepage pop-up that the way Australians used Google was at risk. Australia’s competition authority pushed back against what it identified as misinformation in the letter. But that’s another story.) 

The current Facebook announcement concluded with mention that negotiations over Facebook News are active in France and Germany. Brazil, India, and Australia were not mentioned, although the company said that it “will continue to work with publishers in countries where market conditions and regulatory environments invite this kind of investment and innovation.” 

In December, just days after Facebook’s UK announcement, Reuters reported that Australia will make both Facebook and Google pay news outlets for content in a “world-first.” Facebook’s Easton responded that the company will “review the legislation and ‘engage through the upcoming parliamentary process with the goal of landing on a workable framework to support Australia’s news ecosystem.’” (Reuters also added that Google declined to comment for the article, saying it had not yet seen the final version of the law.)

“This commercial licensing agreement is largely the result of the regulatory pressures that Facebook, and other online platforms, are facing in Australia and elsewhere around the world. This licensing agreement is a great first step, as governments and regulators across the world consider the role and responsibilities of large tech platforms in the online information ecosystem,” said Guardian’s Hahn told INMA. “We welcome [it], but we continue to believe meaningful regulation of global tech platforms is vital and long overdue. We’ll continue to press for such regulation, and to hold powerful corporations — including Facebook — to account.”

About L. Carol Christopher

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