In July 2019, Journalism.co.uk reported that Facebook was planning to introduce a platform-integrated subscription tool and a dedicated space for news. Last week, the social media platform kept its word as it announced it was testing the Facebook News tab.
It curates a select amount of US publishers' posts into one tab, while continuing to integrate the stories into News Feeds. But there are a range of other features, which plan to improve audiences' control and access to news content - and in doing so, improve reach, engagement and revenue for the publishers.
However, news organisations would be forgiven for having concerns and mixed feelings, given, for example, the previously disruptive changes made by Facebook to its algorithm, which resulted in significant drops in web traffic.
Journalism.co.uk reached out to different parts of the industry for their first thoughts and early impressions on the new features:
Facebook’s limited source list is: US-only, excludes smaller / local outlets, and *includes* a website that Wikipedia won’t allow to be cited due to reliability issues. And it’s attracting brand blowback for news outlets that have joined. So ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/43OaDPTr7q— 𝐂𝐨𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐧𝐞 𝐏𝐨𝐝𝐠𝐞𝐫📱🎓 (@corinne_podger) October 28, 2019
Reining in the power
When asked by Journalism.co.uk at Digital Publishing Summit 2019 (30 October 2019), Dame Francis Cairncross, the author of the Cairncross Review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism, said the announcement represents, at least, a realisation from the platform to concede power.
"It is starting, at last, to be under pressure from the US government for over-reaching its market power," she said.
"The US government has got to rein in the power from the platforms - it’s not something that other nations can do on their own, and they know they have to have journalists on their side, otherwise they’re in trouble."
Restoring public image
However, Nic Newman, senior research associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said the feature is little more than a PR exercise.
"It is not going to save journalism, but it may provide some short-term cash for publishers and short-term positive PR for Facebook," he said.
As a declining number of users head to Facebook for news, Newman doubts that audiences will take the added step of opening the news tab for content.
Instead, digital media expert Matt Navarra thinks users will continue to gravitate towards groups and messaging apps. He expects the publisher to keep pushing that trend, but this could pose a significant challenge to publishers.
"As long as Facebook maintains the ability for users to easily share content discovered in the news tab into these places, we will most likely see a continuation of this shift to more private or 'dark' social activity," Navarra explained.
"This is something that still creates challenges for publishers in tracking who is consuming their content, and where they discovering it."
A history of contentious and opaque decisions, Newman adds, makes the transparency of included publishers a key concern. The controversial inclusion of Breitbart, a far-right opinion website known for misinformation, on Facebook News has been met by staunch criticism by the industry - and Facebook has defended the decision too.
"The key question is whether and how this curated news will drive decisions across the Facebook network about which brands to surface and ignore," Newman said.
Navarra agreed that how publishers - and by extension pieces of content - are selected will lead to frustration not only with publishers, but regulators, governments and users themselves.
"How they navigate this minefield may ultimately be what makes or breaks it in the year ahead," he said.
A complicated relationship
But publishers cannot give up on it just yet, Navarra argues. While Facebook is still in Twitter's shadow when it comes to breaking news, its source of referral traffic is too significant to ignore.
"Facebook has still remained a platform most publishers cannot dismiss, regardless of the tense relationship most have had with them," he explained.
"It has a history of missteps, false promises, and seemingly self-serving product or business pivots, such as the push for more video content."
Because of this, publishers are right to be wary, even if Facebook News can be treated at best as a step in the right direction.
"It's good news that Facebook is willing to pay publishers for its content and not seek to directly profit from the content," Navarra added. "However, Facebook's News tab is not entirely without benefit to the company."
📰 Introducing Facebook News - a dedicated news tab starting to roll out today in the US pic.twitter.com/Mrkx6CGWaq— Facebook (@facebook) October 25, 2019
The 'dedicated space' of Facebook News is an echoing reminder of past plugs for Marketplace and Facebook Watch, neither of which proved a hit with audiences.
"Both of those have appeared to have faltered at times in terms of interest from users, especially Facebook Watch, which continues to struggle in getting people to seek out new content in its own dedicated tab," said Navarra.
Publisher or distributor?
Some may argue that Facebook does not need to get involved with any of this, as Facebook's status as a publisher remains a contested one.
As a tech company, it can shirk off claims it has disrupted the news industry. As a publisher, it has a duty of care for the content that lives on it. But whether Facebook is considered a publisher or a distributor, Cairncross said Facebook must be held accountable for the problems brought-on by its existence.
"This is a new creation and it’s, ultimately, going to be up to lawyers and the courts to work out what it really is," she said.
"But they’re going to have to take some more responsibility. How much responsibility? That is a difficult case because you don’t want Google and Facebook to be the censors and that’s a bigger worry, ultimately, than having them take responsibility."
Learn how quality journalism can thrive in a fake news-era at Newsrewired.com on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
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