Last week, Facebook started testing ‘Facebook News’ with a limited number of U.S. beta testers and 200 publishers, including Business Insider, Buzzfeed News and The Washington Post, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Dedicated to journalism, the News tab intends to give users more control over the news they read, however, publishers aren’t completely sold on the concept.
Facebook News will include a wide range of content from publishers separated into four main categories. To become eligible, publishers must serve a large audience, they must be in Facebook’s News Page Index and they must adhere to Facebook’s Publisher Guidelines. In addition, their integrity status will be checked regularly by third-party fact-checkers for factors such as clickbait and hate speech.
The four main categories publishers may be included in are below.
- General – publications that publish across a wide range of topics.
- Topical – publishers who specialize in a particular topic such as entertainment or politics.
- Diverse – publishers focused on key communities that fall under the five major ethnic and racial groups defined by the U.S. Census.
- Local News – publishers focused on local news stories. At launch, Facebook News will include local news from the top 10 U.S. metro markets.
Sounds straightforward, right? Maybe to everyone except the news organizations who have been repeatedly burned by Facebook in the past.
The Reason Publishers Don’t Trust Facebook? There’s a Few.
Publishers are showing signs of hesitation when it comes to participating in Facebook News, and for good reason. Read on for a few examples.
Facebook launched Instant Articles in 2015, with reputable publisher partners, such as the New York Times and the Atlantic. Rather than loading news articles in a separate browser window, which took an average of 8 seconds to do, Facebook started loading the content inside its app.
Publishers didn’t see the results they had expected due to subscription signup boxes and restricted advertising rules. Due to a lack of monetization and stable reporting, publishers began to scale back and, by late 2017, Facebook pulled the plug on Instant Articles altogether.
Inflating Video View Metrics
Also in 2015, Facebook promoted “the shift to video,” citing 1 billion video views per day, later to find they were inflating video views by 150% to 900%. Facebook’s algorithm prioritized video so publishers staffed and planned appropriately, or so they thought.
Facebook ended up decreasing viral video priority, which eliminated 50 million hours per day of video viewing. They began prioritizing friend content instead, leaving publishers who invested in the shift to video high and dry.
Down-Ranking News Content
By the time 2018 rolled around, Facebook continued prioritizing friends’ content over news in the news feed, despite the impact on independent publishers. Publishers realized how much power they had given Facebook when the amount of news shown decreased from 5% to 4%. Referral traffic dropped, with Slate reporting they lost 87% of traffic from Facebook at that point.
Why Are Some Publishers Still Playing Nice?
Despite a guilty record, Facebook is trying to prove a point by paying some publishers directly, even if it’s only about 25% of them. Mark Zuckerburg himself has also taken the time to address concerns head-on.
On October 25th, the Facebook CEO faced journalists and the media to admit he understands the hesitancy many publishers may have. “We can do a better job of working with partners to have more transparency and also lead time about what we see in the pipeline,” Zuckerberg said, adding, “I think stability is a big theme.”
Through another peace offering of sorts, Facebook’s Journalism Project invested in a three-month program to assist in video programming expertise. The workshop comes with $300,000 in funding and was offered to roughly 20 European publishers. Like Google’s Digital News Initiative, which funds hundreds of news projects annually, publishers accept the relationship for what it is. They’re not after a friendship, they’re after closer access to internal product and development teams.
Which Path Should Publishers Choose?
Let’s review the pros and cons.
- Possible payment – Facebook paying a percentage of publishers is a step in the right direction
- Daily curated news – Facebook is hiring a dedicated team responsible for curating content in a section called ‘Today’s Stories’, which will highlight top national news stories daily.
- Personalization – users can hide stories they have no interest in and browse sections filled with a particular topic to spark curiosity
- Linked Subscriptions – users can link their news subscriptions to their Facebook accounts and browse news freely
- Facebook’s questionable past – a persistent timeline of disappointment for publishers
- Lack of transparency – at launch, publishers will have no way of tracking referral traffic from the News tab versus other areas of Facebook
- Technical challenges – participating publishers have been expected to build a separate API for Facebook to inject content directly
- Uncertain future – Facebook’s flaky past combined with the unknown future of digital advertising in general, proves it’s difficult to determine Facebook’s actions at any given moment
All news organizations are built differently and have different goals. The path they choose to take to fulfill those goals will be different as well. There’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to any problem the industry faces, but there are best practice methods we’ve recently touched on.
- Own your audience and get serious about your first-party data
- Focus on growth and diversify your revenue streams
- Hire skilled specialists and offer ongoing training opportunities
- Rethink partnership strategies – quality over quantity
- Remember, excellent customer service is never a fading trend
If it’s possible, rebuilding trust with walled gardens will take time, patience and a willingness to try. Who knows, maybe publishers will finally call it quits?