Facebook and Paying for News

From a story on cjr.org by Mathew Ingram headlined “Facebook and paying for news”:

ON JUNE 9, Keach Hagey and Alexandra Bruell reported for the Wall Street Journal that Facebook, a subsidiary of Meta Platforms, was “re-examining its commitment to paying for news,” according to several unnamed sources who were described as familiar with Facebook’s plans. The potential loss of those payments, the Journal reporters wrote, was “prompting some news organizations to prepare for a potential revenue shortfall of tens of millions of dollars.” The Journal story was similar to a report published in May by The Information, a subscription-only site that covers technology; in that piece, reporters Sylvia Varnham O’Regan and Jessica Toonkel said Meta was“considering reducing the money it gives news organizations as it reevaluates the partnerships it struck over the past few years,” and that this was part of a rethinking of “the value of including news in its flagship Facebook app.”

Meta wouldn’t comment to either the Journal or The Information, and a spokesperson told CJR the company “doesn’t comment on speculation.” But the loss of payments from Meta could have a noticeable impact for some outlets. According to the Journalreport, for the past two years—since the original payment deals were announced in 2019— Meta has paid the Washington Postmore than $15 million per year, the New York Times over $20 million per year, and the Journal more than $10 million per year (the payments to the Journal are part of a broader deal with Dow Jones, the newspaper’s parent, which is said to be worth more than $20 million per year). The deals, which are expected to expire this year, were part of a broader system of payments Meta made to about 200 news outlets, including Bloomberg, ABC News, USA Today, Business Insider, and the right-wing news site Breitbart News. Smaller deals were typically for $3 million a year or less, the Journal said.

The payments were announced in 2019 as part of the launch of the “News tab,” a dedicated section of Facebook where readers can find news from the outlets that partnered with Meta (higher payments were made to those with paywalls). The launch was a high-profile affair, including a one-on-one interview between Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp.—parent company of Dow Jones and the Journal—and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote for CJR that the meeting was like “a Camp David for peace between the most truculent old media empire and one of its most noxious disruptors,” and wondered how much it had cost for News Corp. to forget about its long-standing opposition to Facebook. The event was “a publicity coup for Facebook; it tamed the biggest beast in the journalism jungle,” Bell wrote.

Bell is not the only media industry observer to note that Facebook’s payments to media outlets have felt more like a marketing strategy than a sign of a commitment to journalism. “The correct way to view Google and Facebook’s actions, I believe, is through the lens of PR,” wrote Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, a year or so after the launch of the News tab, when Google announced something very similar. “The troubles of the news business are a major PR problem for these companies, who—however fair they or anyone else thinks it is—get blamed for its ills.” The move to pay media companies did seem like a rather dramatic shift in Facebook’s viewpoint: a little over a year before the launch of the News tab, Zuckerbergseemed to be skeptical of the idea of paying the media for content. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” he told Vox during an interview in 2018, after being asked about a proposal from Rupert Murdoch that the social network should pay “carriage fees” for news content.

As Benton and others have noted, the decision to pay publishers, after years of refusing to do so, came amid rising pressure from legislators in multiple jurisdictions, aimed at getting Google and Facebook to compensate the media industry for the harms allegedly done to it by the digital platforms’ control of online advertising. That kind of pressure has been a constant drumbeat for the past 15 years or so, after publishers in Spain, France, and Germany started pushing for legislation that would compel Google to pay for reusing content from news sites. A desire to quash this kind of legislation was part of why Google launched what became its Google News Initiative, in which it committed to pay publishers $300 million over three years for training, internships, and other partnership arrangements. Facebook made similar kinds of commitments with its Facebook Journalism Project, which launched in 2017.

But the pressure on Google and Facebook to pay publishers ramped up with legislation in Australia in 2021, which forced platforms to sign licensing deals with media outlets or face binding arbitration. Both companies eventually signed a number of deals with certain publishers (although there was criticism that smaller outlets were left out), and other countries such as Canada and the UK are expected to pass similar laws soon. According to the Journal, Zuckerberg has been “disappointed” by these regulatory efforts, which have reportedly “damped [his] enthusiasm for making news a bigger part of Facebook’s offerings.” And Meta has apparently noticed that “fewer people have been clicking on links to news articles since President Donald Trump left office,” according to The Information. The company also appears to be much more focused on promoting short-form video—as a way of competing with TikTok, the popular video-sharing platform—than appeasing publishers.

Here’s more on Facebook:

  • The irony: In 2018, I wrote for CJR about how Google and Facebook had become the two largest funders of media and journalism in the world, and the risks of depending on them as a source of revenue. “The irony is hard to miss,” I wrote. “The dismantling of the traditional advertising model—largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue—has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.”
  • Loss of trust: When the News tab was announced, Josh Constine of TechCrunch wrote that Facebook shouldn’t be trusted. “Are we really doing this again?” he asked. “After the pivot to video. After Instant Articles. After news was deleted from the News Feed. Once more, Facebook dangles extra traffic, and journalism outlets leap through its hoop and into its cage.” Publishers, Constine argued, should have learned the risks of relying on the platforms. “When you build on someone else’s land, don’t be surprised when you’re bulldozed. And really, given Facebook’s flawless track record of pulling the rug out from under publishers, no one should be surprised.”
  • Amplification: New research indicates that changes to the Facebook recommendation algorithm amplified the reach of Republican posts and content during the first half of 2019. “We conclude that it seems possible that changes in how Facebook rated content led to a doubling of the total shares of local Republican party posts compared to local Democratic party posts in the first half of 2019 even though Democratic parties posted more often during this period,” the scientists who conducted the research wrote. “The fact that private companies can so easily control the political information flow for millions of Americans raises clear questions for the state of democracy.”
  • Failure to detect: Facebook failed to detect violent hate speech in advertisements submitted to the platform by the non-profit groups Global Witness and Foxglove, the Guardian reported. “The hateful messages focused on Ethiopia, where internal documents obtained by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that Facebook’s ineffective moderation is fanning ethnic violence”, as she said in her 2021 congressional testimony,” the paper wrote. In March, Global Witness ran a similar test with hate speech in advertisements in Myanmar, which Facebook also reportedly failed to detect.

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