The media today: Facebook wants you to know it’s really trying

Facebook has announced a number of new features recently that appear to be designed to repair the company’s relationship with the media, the fractious state of which was the subject of a long cover story in the latest Wired magazine (featuring an artist’s rendering of Mark Zuckerberg looking as though he has been beaten up). Two senior executives at the company also spoke at a Recode event this week about their view of the social media landscape. There are a lot of moving parts to all of these various developments, so here’s a quick overview.

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The Wired story goes into some detail (thanks, it says, to over 50 conversations with current and former employees) about how Facebook’s view of itself has evolved over the past few years: It first denied being a media entity and only recently grudgingly admitted to having played a key role in the dissemination of political disinformation orchestrated by Russian troll factories. One key turning point was the controversy in 2016 over alleged manipulation of the “trending topics” feature, and another key point—not surprisingly—was getting hauled in front of Congress for hearings into foreign political activities on the platform.

Since then, Facebook has decided to move the News Feed algorithm away from mainstream news and more towards user-generated content that generates discussion, with the proviso that it will introduce “high quality” news into a user’s feed, based on user surveys of trusted news sources. “This is not us stepping back from news,” Head of News Campbell Brown said at the Recode event. “We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step in trying to define what quality news looks like and try to give that a boost.”

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Both Brown and VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri said they are trying to make things easy for media companies, but there is only so much they can do. “My job isn’t to convince them to stay on Facebook,” said Brown. “If someone feels that being on Facebook is not good for your business, you shouldn’t be on Facebook.” That said, Brown and Mosseri announced several features designed to soothe the ruffled feathers of news entities, including a hard-news section for Facebook Watch videos and support for paywalls in Instant Articles, which will integrate directly with publishers’ paid offerings. Whether that changes the skepticism some outlets seem to have towards Instant Articles remains to be seen (meanwhile, fake news scammers are apparently more than happy to keep using the feature).

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More on Facebook and its evolving relationship with the media:

  • The Hollywood Reporter has details about the company’s roll-out of both paywall support in Instant Articles and a news section for Facebook Watch. The integration of subscriptions into Instant Articles was held up because of a dispute with Apple about revenue sharing that has apparently been settled.
  • Facebook’s Mosseri admitted on CNBC that while the changes to the ranking of news in a user’s feed could help some media outlets, including certain local publishers that are highly trusted, it could also result in “meaningful downward pressure in the months ahead” for publishers who don’t make the cut.
  • In an interview with Variety, Mosseri said his biggest fear for the future is that Facebook may miss the next big problem caused by foreign agents because of a blind spot, the same way it was arguably slow to recognize the very real problem of disinformation or fake news coming from Russian troll factories during the 2016 election.
  • Meanwhile, a Facebook crackdown on sponsored content is forcing some publishers to modify or even cancel programs aimed at distributing their stories and videos through “influencer networks,” according to Digiday. Publishers are no longer allowed to accept anything of value in return for sharing content that they didn’t actually create.
  • On the European front, Facebook continues to find itself subject to local regulation. A German court has ruled that Facebook’s “real name” policy, which requires users to post under their real identities, is illegal and that under a German law designed to protect privacy, Facebook has to allow users to sign up and post under pseudonyms. The social network said it plans to appeal the decision.


Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times‘ popular podcast The Daily, which the company says has more than 4.5 million listeners, is coming to public radio via a partnership with American Public Media. The broadcast will consist of a 30-minute, edited version of the podcast.
  • Michelle Dean writes in the latest issue of CJR about how those in positions of power are using non-disclosure agreements as a way of trying to keep their sexual transgressions from becoming public.
  • Salon is telling readers they can either disable their ad-blocking software when reading the site’s articles, or they can opt in to an ad-free offering that allows the site to use their computer’s spare processing power to create cryptocurrency tokens.
  • In other crypto news, Jarrod Dicker, formerly VP of innovation at The Washington Post, has left to join a media startup called Poets, which he says is trying to create “a better model for the media ecosystem” using what cryptocurrency advocates call the “blockchain,” a kind of distributed ledger for tracking digital activity.
  • The New York Times said writer Quinn Norton was joining the paper as an opinion columnist, but after a number of offensive tweets started circulating, the Times said it was reviewing its decision. Norton tried to explain the tweets, but then the paper said it had changed its mind.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.