The social media company will pay companies including the New York Times, WIRED—and Breitbart—to distribute their content.
News Corp CEO Robert Thomson has been attacking Facebook for more than a decade. Long before the company acquired Instagram or WhatsApp, before there was a Like button, Thomson lambasted Facebook and Google for their stronghold on online advertising, and resulting damage to journalism. He’s described them as a foul-smelling duopoly; “bot-infested badlands”; platforms for “the fake, the faux and the fallacious”; and peddlers of “a flat earth philosophy that doesn’t wish to distinguish between the fake and the real.” And many other things.
In 2018, Thomson singled out Facebook for being “in denial” about itself, adding that “Mark [Zuckerberg] finds it very difficult to say ‘publisher,’ but he is a publisher, and a lot of what they are publishing is reprehensible.” In March, he said “the Facebook icon may appear to be an approving thumb, but to content creators it’s actually a contemptuous middle finger.”
All of that went out the window Friday, as Thomson took the stage with Zuckerberg himself to celebrate the roll out of Facebook News, a dedicated space showcasing “quality journalism” from news outlets, curated by a team of human Facebook employees. The two men spent 45 minutes showering each other with praise and lauding the News Tab as a pivotal moment for journalism. Thomson said Zuckerberg deserved “genuine credit” for the new feature—which he described as having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”—and complimented the Facebook CEO for being “consistently thoughtful on the subject of journalism.”
Facebook revealed the new feature Friday in a move that will earn some publishers, like Thompson’s News Corp, millions of dollars a year for giving Facebook access to their work. Zuckerberg said Facebook will pay only some, rather than all, publishers, as a way to encourage better-quality content on Facebook. The feature will only be available for a couple of hundred thousand users in the US at first, with a wider release in coming months. Users who click on the News Tab will see a curated selection of top news stories from one of Facebook’s many “trusted news sources,” a genre of approved publishers ranging from The New York Times to BuzzFeed News. The credibility of the effort was undercut for some people by the inclusion of Breitbart, known for pushing white nationalist talking points, conspiracy theories, and polarizing political content of dubious quality.
Zuckerberg, who as recently as May 2018 said that he had no plans to pay publishers for their content, said Friday that he had been looking for a way to pay publishers for “three or four years.” He said his thinking on the subject was shaped by Thomson, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron.
“It’s no secret that the internet has really disrupted the news business model,” Zuckerberg said. “I just think that every internet platform has a responsibility to try to help fund and inform partnerships to support news.”
As for why it took him more than a decade to put that belief into action, Zuckerberg blamed the “fundamental architecture of News Feed,” which he said prioritizes content from users’ friends and family over news. He pointed to Facebook’s previous attempts to court publishers, like Instant Articles and news subscriptions, as evidence of the company’s commitment to journalism. He didn’t mention that half of the initial news outlets for Instant Articles abandoned it within three years, or Facebook’s infamously short-lived push to get publishers to pivot to video.
Zuckerberg said he hoped the News Tab would eventually have 20 to 30 million users, but admitted that could take “years.” Still, Thomson urged him to move quickly, describing the endeavor as a potential lifeline for publications struggling to stay afloat in the tumultuous digital news era. He suggested that News Tab could save some local papers from extinction, noting that some local news organizations have sought out Zuckerberg to make the case to be included.
In an internal memo to BuzzFeed staff, Peretti said “it’s a good day for the internet” and praised Facebook for “step[ping] up and tak[ing] responsibility for their role in the news ecosystem.” WIRED, and its owner Condé Nast, are among the publications participating in the program. A company spokesperson declined to disclose any information about the terms of the agreement, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
Not everyone likes the new program, however. Laura Bassett, cofounder of the Save Journalism Project—a nonprofit organization advocating for journalists in the digital era—says the News Tab is a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week” and shift the conversation away from Facebook’s dismal track record when it comes to supporting journalism.
Bassett is extremely skeptical of publishers’ newfound praise for Facebook. “How can you call Zuckerberg the savior of journalism when he’s one of the ones that killed it?” she asked. “You can’t kill something, then revive it, and then get praised for that.” She finds it extremely unlikely that the News Tab will revive much at all.
“It’s not going to bring back any jobs,” Bassett said. “It’s a drop in the bucket, frankly, compared with the damage they’ve done to journalism.”
All Rights Reserved for Paris Martineau