The initial U.S. test phase of the Facebook News tab launched last month, and Facebook’s willingness to pay for news content in multi-year deals stands in contrast to other platforms. A Facebook spokesperson recently shared with INMA insights into the News tab and questions from news publishers.
“This is a milestone in publishers’ quest to get paid for content,” Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor wrote on the topic. Observers note that Google, by contrast, says it won’t pay carriage fees for content that shows up in its search results.
Facebook’s News tab was developed in consultation with publishing executives such as News Corp CEO Robert Thomson and Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner. The tab also was a by-product of a survey of more than 100,000 U.S. Facebook users.
INMA counted at least seven issues industry observers — including The Wall Street Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, and Neiman Labs — have highlighted:
- How much content publishers will open up.
- Facebook’s prior stumbles in its relationship with news publishers.
- Potential conflicts of interest for publishers.
- Facebook is not a journalism company.
- Transparency: Will Facebook release its list of publishers?
- The inclusion of fringe opinion-led Web sites like Breitbart among News Tab options.
- Unequal treatment: Some publishers get paid, some don’t.
A Facebook spokesperson visited with INMA about several of these issues.
“It’s worth noting that the tab has only launched to a couple hundred thousand users,” the spokesperson said. “We’re still learning, and the publisher list is very fluid at this stage. As Facebook News continues to roll out, we’ll learn more about the content that works best in the tab, and the list of paid partners will likely change.”
Ultimately, Facebook told INMA it intends to launch News tab outside of the United States but has neither markets nor launch dates selected.
“Importantly, we know that the product will likely function differently in markets around the world based off of user preferences and regulatory constraints. Our hope is that this new, dedicated tab will help drive traffic to the diverse set of publishers that meet our standards,” the spokesperson said.
But in determining who gets paid, Facebook emphasises diversity and looks for what is “not already on Facebook.”
To achieve a “diverse set of quality publishers” in Facebook news, the company outlined this plan for qualifying publishers, who must meet its standards at all times or face removal:
- A news media company must be registered on its News Page Index. To be included, Facebook told INMA content must include things like bylines, facts that support assertions, and “not an aggregator or self-publisher.”
- Publishers must reach a Facebook-determined, sufficiently large audience off of Facebook, based on how it categorises a publication.
- Publishers must satisfy a set of integrity signals Facebook based on a publisher’s behaviour on Facebook. “We can’t police the entire Internet, but when it comes to our platform, we can incent publishers to comply with a strict set of guidelines,” the spokesperson said. Running afoul of those guidelines means removal from the tab for at least six months.
With regard to Breitbart, a far-right opinion-led site that legacy news organisations argue does not fit the definition of “journalism,” the spokesperson said: “Facebook News gives people more control over the stories they see and the ability to explore a wider range of their news interests beyond News Feed. It also highlights the most relevant national stories of the day in the top section of the tab. Like all publications that currently meet our criteria, Breitbart will be aggregated into the tab. If someone doesn’t want to see a news organisation in their Facebook News experience, they are able to hide that publication.”
The spokesperson described Facebook as a social network that, unlike a media company, does not create its own content. Rather, “Facebook News is meant to connect people to more news on Facebook based on their interests and to highlight the most relevant stories with national attention.”
But Facebook does seem to nod toward its role in the public sphere and as a gatekeeper: It acknowledged a “responsibility to make sure the content others share doesn’t cause harm, spread hate, or break the law.”
Every day on Facebook alone, more than 30 million people in the United States click on links from verified news publishers. It has a definition of news and pays people to curate — gatekeep — some of it.
And while there are similarities to traditional journalism outlets — like gatekeeping and a role in the social discourse — there are also differences.
For example, the top national stories receive the attention of “curators,” whose job description bears similarity to that of editors: “[We have] a seasoned team of journalists who have editorial independence and look to include well-sourced stories, breaking news, and original reporting. … That includes reporting about Facebook as well.”
“It is important for the team” to “operate independently of the news partnerships team” and “to exercise its own judgment in terms of which topics and publisher stories to select, without regard to Facebook involvement in the news or relationships that we have with publishers. … What they will do is help make sure people see news from publishers that is timely and relevant, which we’ve heard from people is what they expect from a news experience and just as all of our competitors do in some fashion.”
But what the curators won’t be doing is “changing headlines or writing or editing news stories,” the spokesperson said.
Facebook draws further distinctions between itself and traditional news publishers, whom some might see as being those competitors, the spokesperson said: “We’re a social network where people come to connect with friends and family, publishers come to share news, and businesses come to reach customers. Unlike a media company, we don’t create our own content.”
And it implied its actual definition of news itself might be broader and of broader interest than that produced by traditional journalism culture: “We … define news broadly to sync with our users’ eclectic interests, so the Tab is not just focused on what some call ‘hard news,’ but also publishers that focus on more topical news in areas like sports, science, and entertainment,” the spokesperson said. “Facebook News provides users with a specific tab to go to and see top breaking news, as well as stories that are of interest to them.”
The Facebook News tab may be a boon to many publishers, but it remains a work in progress. The company’s talk of launching internationally suggests this is as much a permanent project as any Facebook has worked on before with its sometimes wary, sometimes jubilant journalism allies.