Facebook is starting today to test a dedicated news section, Facebook News, that it's paying some publishers as mucn as $3 million a year to participate in.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year floated the idea of creating a place for users who want more news. The tech giant has since begun talking to publishers and hiring to support it.
Facebook News is being rolled out to around 200,000 users and around 200 publishers in the US to start, with plans to expand it to more users and publishers over time.
The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and New York Media are among some 40 publishers Facebook is paying to supply their news to the section. The New York Times wouldn't comment on its participation.
'A better environment for news'
The section was seen as a way to help Facebook repair its reputation that's been dented by the spread of misleading and fake news on its platform. To encourage publishers to provide their news to the section, Facebook made it enticing in several ways.
- It features links back to publishers' sites so they can benefit from traffic and associated ad sales when people click on the links.
- Facebook said the section won't replace the news that's in the main feed, so the new section will represent incremental traffic.
- The top of the section will feature top stories picked by a team of human editors, while other parts will be algorithmically driven.
- Facebook also made sure publishers with paywalls could keep their models intact in the new section.
"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.
Over the summer, Facebook sent a team of 10 to a meeting with ABC News and shared a detailed road map for the product, indicating a high level of deliberation, said Colby Smith, the senior vice president of content and 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 at the time.
"They definitely want another crack at being a meaningful business partner for publishers," Smith said.
A news-only tab could make a lot of sense
On the surface, it makes sense to have a separate tab for news, 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 over the years changed strategies to promote and pay for news, and it has said it wants to elevate quality news on the platform but has struggled with how to judge quality.
A lot of publishers are strapped for revenue and welcome any funding as Facebook and Google eat up most of the digital-ad pie.
The section comes as rival platforms Apple and Snap have been increasingly paying publishers to present their content. In fact, about the time Zuckerberg floated the news-tab idea, Apple News launched a subscription program that shares revenue with publishers.
The new section featuring established news outlets could help Facebook defend against criticism of its problems with misinformation and propaganda spreading on the platform and accusations of ideological bias, from both the left and the right, in the news it promotes in the feed.
Facebook emphasized that it sought to represent a wide array of publishers in Facebook News, covering general, subject-specific, and local outlets, and that it will seek to expand the list over time. Facebook said publishers had to meet other criteria such as its community standards against hate speech. It didn't publicize which ones were being paid.
But a common criticism is that only a few publishers will get paid and that the payments leave out most of the news ecosystem, especially local newspapers, the most hard-hit sector of the news industry.
David Chavern, president & CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade organization for newspapers, said the initiative is a "small but awkward start" but is mostly to the benefit of national news providers, which leaves out most of the news ecosystem.
Also, by negotiating one by one with publishers and requiring them to sign NDAs, Facebook prevents publishers from knowing what the market for their news is, putting them at a disadvantage, he said.
"It highlights the need for some collective work. No one is allowed to know what everybody else has gotten," he said.
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 its Watch video section. An exec who's familiar with the plans said Zuckerberg believed a news tab could draw 15% of Facebook users, which could be huge.
But Facebook has set expectations low with other publishers, telling them it's unknown how much traffic benefit they'll get, since going to News requires users to change their behavior.
And will Facebook keep paying publishers after the three-year terms end? Veteran publishers have seen other initiatives come and go as the company's interests and priorities change.