The New Gatekeepers

Zuckerberg cares about journalism, but says he doesn’t want to pay for it

May 3, 2018

The news is important, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at an invitation only event in Menlo Park, Calif. following the company’s F8 conference on Tuesday. The event was an off-the-record briefing that Zuckerberg chose to turn into an on-the-record interview with editors and reporters from a number of leading media organizations, including The New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Economist and CNN.

But even if the Facebook founder thinks the news is important, that apparently doesn’t mean he has any plans to actually pay for it, the way media insiders like BuzzFeed Publisher Jonah Peretti and the Tow Center’s Emily Bell believe that he should. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” Zuckerberg said when the idea was raised. Instead, he says the company wants to help media companies sell more subscriptions and generate more revenue from readers. Adrienne LaFrance writes in The Atlantic:

At one point, Zuckerberg hinted at the need for government subsidy of American journalism—alluding to the public-television licensing model that supports the BBC. Couldn’t Facebook pay publishers directly by licensing their stories or programming? “Yeah,” Zuckerberg said, “I’m not sure that makes sense.” “I think news is incredibly important to society and democracy,” he added. “It’s just that it’s a pretty small minority” of what people are reading on Facebook.

The Facebook CEO also announced that the social network has already started elevating certain preferred news sources in the News Feed based on whether users rank them as trustworthy, a controversial approach that the company first announced earlier this year. Trust is an slippery concept when it comes to news—for example, surveys show many conservative voters don’t trust mainstream media sources like CNN, but do trust Breitbart.

At some point, selecting “high quality” sources of news means Facebook is going to be deciding who is worthy of showing in the News Feed and who isn’t, which could have a significant impact on the traffic and revenue generated by those who are chosen and those who aren’t (I talked about this problem with Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, in an interview you can find here).

Already, some publishers like Mic have seen their Facebook engagement decline by more than 90 percent, and the ranking process has only just begun. But Zuckerberg said the platform’s responsibility to news only goes so far:

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“People come to Facebook primarily not to consume news but to communicate with people,” Zuckerberg said. “The way we can help out the most with that is by helping out with a business model that is profitable and sustainable for news organizations.”

Given that Facebook is going to be selecting winners and losers in the media sphere, it’s interesting that Zuckerberg’s comments were made to a specific group of selected publications. The choice of who to include wasn’t made by Facebook, however—the event was organized by The Information founder Jessica Lessin (who also sits on CJR’s board), as well as BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith, and Quartz Editor Kevin Delaney.

Considering the sensitivity around what Zuckerberg was discussing, it was probably smart of him to go on the record with his comments, since there are already enough people out there suspicious of what Facebook is doing to the media industry behind the scenes. The bottom line seems to be that he cares about journalism, but apart from some tweaks to the News Feed and some help with subscriptions, he’s not prepared to do a whole lot about it. And who knows? Maybe that’s ultimately a good thing.

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 by Reuters and Bloomberg.