Facebook’s proposal to license news signifies a change

Facebook’s announcement this week—that it plans to syndicate news stories on its app—has set off a train of “What does it mean for journalism?” questions. But the most pertinent question is what this move signals for Facebook.

The offer is remarkably simple, old-fashioned, almost. Facebook will pay publishers as much as $3 million (when and whether this would recur, Facebook hasn’t said) to supply stories for a curated section of its app called “news” that will be available to users in a discrete tab. That means Facebook will start actively curating news, which could cause a significant shift in its business strategy and its DNA. 

In 2016, Facebook’s news curation team it was disbanded, under pressure from right-wing activists and politicians. While other companies such as Apple, LinkedIn, and Twitter  built editorial curation teams with varying degrees of success, Facebook went without a central newsroom or news function to evaluate the merit of stories. Facebook’s pivot to editorial judgement is still fairly mysterious, but it now finally acknowledges that news provision is within its purview. 

That might be too generous a reading, of course. The fact that Facebook’s revenue model imperils news companies remains a peripheral but significant PR problem for Facebook.  Taking a leaf out of Google’s book and seeking to mollify the news industry might help allay an impending regulatory onslaught. It seems unlikely that, say, paying The New York Times for Kara Swisher’s columns or The Guardian for Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations would ever dampen news organizations’ enthusiasm for probing Facebook, but the dynamics of a direct business partnership always change a relationship. 

The news tab is the latest in a four-year-long series of initiatives aimed at creating an integrated relationship with news organizations; all the initiatives thus far could be described as failures. Arguably, Facebook is taking something it is historically bad at—cultivating relations with news organizations—and attacking the problem with something it is extremely good at—copying and often improving features offered by competitors, in this case, Apple. 

Facebook’s product concept looks like a version of Apple News, which has a curated news tab and solicits stories directly from publishers. But Apple doesn’t pay. The introduction of Apple News+ earlier this year added a feeble subscription layer, whereas the Facebook proposal seems much more like an old-fashioned syndication service. This is everything many publishers have been asking for:straight-up payment for content they already produce. So where’s the catch?

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News organizations ought to already suspect there is one: that Facebook will induce them to design products or change coverage in a way that undermines news outlets’ independence, brands, or revenues— and then Facebook will lose interest. When Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced in 2017 that the future of advertising and Facebook’s business was “video, video, video,” it prompted the catastrophic industry-wide “pivot to video,” which  hastened the decline and eventual obliteration of news outlets such as Mic, and further emaciated newsrooms that had allocated resources from cheaper reporting formats to fund expensive video production. 

The news tab is less vexing for text providers; for the moment, it seems as though it will simply provide an extra revenue stream. It preserves the  news companies’ autonomy, or at least the illusion of it.

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In the latest round of Tow Center research on the relationship between platforms and publishers, which will be released in a few weeks, our researchers found that a catalog of failed initiatives have left publishers both warier and more sophisticated in their thinking about platforms. The failure of Facebook Instant Articles, launched in 2015; the misadventures of Facebook Live; and the general disappointment of social network-dependent news organizations like BuzzFeed, Mashable, and Mic have created disillusionment and distrust. The emerging model for publishers is to meet their audiences away from platforms entirely—on their own apps, and in real spaces at events and conferences—and to find revenue from sources that cannot be withdrawn by a third party’s algorithm change. 

Does Facebook’s news tab change anything? No. But it does highlight that the slow, forced integration of news into large tech companies continues. Will news outlets be able to resist the allure of additional funding from Facebook? That question is still open.

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Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.