Media amnesia and the Facebook News Tab

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It would be nice to know the exact story that brought Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, onto the stage of New York’s Paley Center with his new partner in journalism, Mark Zuckerberg. On Friday, the two men—one young, in a sweater and sneakers; the other older, in a tailored suit and shiny shoes—sat before a packed crowd of slightly over-excited Facebook employees and slightly underwhelmed journalists. It was Camp David for peace between the most truculent old media empire and one of its most noxious disruptors. Cue spotty applause.

Serious questions hung, unasked, in the air: Thomson used to be one of Facebook’s biggest critics—how much did it cost Zuckerberg to change his mind? How much more to get him to participate in a bells-and-whistles product launch? Is News Corp getting three million dollars a year, as advertised, per title, for its participation in the Facebook News Tab—or is it more? Had Zuckerberg been convinced, on a trip eighteen months ago to the gleaming News Corp headquarters, a Sixth Avenue mothership, that the deal was so egregious that even the home of Fox News needed saving? Could it be that, ahead of the 2020 election, both companies find themselves lashed together by the mutual goal of keeping the regulatory impulses of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at bay?

ICYMI: Do technology companies care about journalism?

Here’s what we got: Thomson laid aside hostilities to announce a “new dawn” for journalism. That has involved, apparently, the establishment of “terms of trade” that he and others had long argued about. Facebook will now pay some—but not all—publishers that appear in its tab for news, launched last Friday. Publishers’ stories will be curated by professional editors and sorted into an orderly daily menu, no longer topped by publications as obscure as Unilad and The Lad Bible (no relation).

Whatever the real story, the event was a publicity coup for Facebook; it tamed the biggest beast in the journalism jungle, and brought it quietly to heel. Thomson’s alliterative attacks (i.e. “The bot infested badlands are hardly a safe space for advertisers.”) had become the highlight of European and American regulatory speeches. Now, on the Paley Center stage, the air was filled with the ambrosial aroma of cash-infused amity.

What brought News Corp around is less intriguing than the journey Facebook has embarked on, which has turned the company in a 180-degree direction in terms of content curation from its position in 2016. Back then, Zuckerberg was hit with post-election criticism known to Facebook employees as “the crisis”; the company became locked in an ideological struggle about how to deal with news and content moderation. He opted to pull back Facebook’s efforts at human curation, and instead preferred that “friends and family” dominate the recommendation algorithm in news feeds. As a result, your “friends and family” soon included eastern-European fake news spammers; far-right conspiracy theorists; and Brad Parscale, Donald Trump’s digital campaign supremo. In the years since, talking to Facebook executives made clear that, even at the top of the company, there were disagreements about how to handle journalism—Sheryl Sandberg reportedly favored less engagement; others sought a clearly delineated relationship between publishers and Facebook’s platform. 

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The winners now are those on Team Delineation. That, it would appear, represents progress in Facebook’s long journey to recognising that it has responsibilities beyond product launches. The  Facebook News Tab will be akin to the Apple News app—a tremendous success—but with real cash attached for publishers. At the Paley Center, Zuckerberg told the audience that this will be the first time his company has set out a long-term, stable deal for publishers. That’s quite the admission; when Facebook has paid publishers to use its products in the recent past, the incentives have been both short term and unstable. Take, for instance, Facebook’s declaration in 2016 that the future was “video video video”; we saw the launch of Facebook Live and Facebook Watch, which led to a number of misguided newsrooms executing disastrous pivots to video. Instant Articles, another Facebook endeavor, failed to deliver anything meaningful in the way of revenue for publishers. The Facebook News Tab, the establishment of an internal newsroom that curates the tab, and a regular payment to publishers is an ideologically significant shift for the company, even it if proves to be economically trivial. 

Zuckerberg, usually mild-mannered, was animated, especially when he described Facebook’s hundred-billion-dollar drop in market capitalisation in 2018; the company’s growth had slowed, in part because it had banished malicious content and suspect accounts. But his business is still doing just fine. The pennies expected to flow through the News Tab will make a far bigger impact on the publishers than they do on Facebook.

And here is where the ethical terrain of publishers becomes dicey. Payments to publishers for stories that Facebook might otherwise aggregate for free is a boon for journalism. The idea that there will be a daily, regular newsfeed that’s not filled with nonsense is a boon for Facebook users. The delineation of news as a category distinct from other “content” is a boon for democracy. Yet the readiness with which publishers are seemingly embracing this new business arrangement is discomfiting, given Facebook’s track record, and the total lack of regulation. Will News Corp and others disclose their relationship with Facebook when they cover the tech world? One can only hope so.

A recent report from the Google Transparency Project highlighted how an opaque patronage system can capture a wide range of journalism resources at a relatively low cost. As with Google, the good Facebook can do for journalism would be more plausible if it were easier to parse the financials. Journalistic organizations accepting outside corporate money has to be seen for what it is: a potential conflict of interest. To be sure, tech companies and publishing gatekeepers can’t be separated from the business of content creation, but there has been no discussion—in the halls of American government or elsewhere—to suggest that this kind of patronage is good for independent journalism or anything more, really, than highly effective lobbying. 

A few years ago, when Facebook started rolling out a “Free Basics” product to people in emerging economies, succeeded in connecting poor people to the global market. The result in at least one case, Myanmar, was catastrophic; Facebook hosted infammatory content that human rights watchers say contributed to the genocide of the Rohingya. Offering publishers money for their stories isn’t as bad as that, but it certainly qualifies as creating an unregulated market that, over time, could develop into the exoskeleton of journalistic support. When press companies like News Corp surrender their editorial independence—for a relatively small sum, whatever the rate for special partners may be—then it is not really a win for journalism; it’s a sacrifice. And since, as we know, the most cash-strapped publishers are local journalism organizations, why is Facebook involved with the likes of News Corp—a relatively rich, global outfit—at all?

Maybe we are at the beginning of a new era when platforms will cease to shape the news and its distribution, when there is a more democratic system of deciding how public interest journalism should be supported. But the News Tab doesn’t hold much promise on that front. Every journalist who benefits from Facebook’s cash infusions would do well to find out how much content moderators earn in other parts of the world. An unequal system of content management is what has allowed Facebook to profit from publishing; that era isn’t over.

ICYMI: Facebook’s proposal to license news signifies a change

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