Does Facebook Want to Make Friends With the News Business? Again?

Mark Zuckerberg’s new series of “public discussions” is attracting a lot of buzz. And for good reason. In his latest sit down with the head of Europe’s biggest news publisher, Zuckerberg revealed Facebook is toying with yet another way to direct traffic to news, and might even pay publishers.  (Photo: Courtesy of Facebook)

In his latest sit-down with the head of Europe’s biggest news publisher, Zuckerberg revealed Facebook is toying with yet another way to direct traffic to news in the form of a new, dedicated tab, and might even pay publishers. 

"Facebook could have a direct relationship with publishers order to make sure their content is available, if it's really high quality content. So, there's a whole set of questions around how do we build a service that is contributing to high quality journalism through increasing monetization," Zuckerberg floated.

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The thing is, Facebook's behavior towards the news business has fluctuated wildly in recent years. The social media giant keeps tweaking its relationship with news media, as if the problem is buggy software code instead of an algorithmic preference for "content" that garners maximal ad-generating views.

It was only in February of 2018 that the social media giant cut 20 percent of news out of users' "news" feeds. Another experiment with a standalone news tab died a quick death, in large part because it failed with readers. Between Instant Articles, Facebook Watch for news, and the close hold Facebook keeps on its data, many news publishers have developed a jaundiced attitude.

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And what does Facebook think is “high quality,” exactly? Axel Springer SE CEO Mathias Döpfner echoed the skepticism of many media outlets and, these days, politicians and regulators, too.

"The more you start to curate, and to select, and to make choices, the more you automatically, and even involuntarily, transform into a publication house, into a media company. And then, honestly, you're just too big. Sooner or later, you will be split up by regulators because they will say, 'There cannot be so much dominance in one company that makes the decisions globally who reads what.' So you have to keep a degree of neutrality," Döpfner said.

Honestly, the same concern applies to Google and Apple. And they, too, have put forward initiatives that look like peace offerings to the news media.

But Facebook may be committed to give the new idea a try, regardless of Döpfner's doubts. According to Recode, Zuckerberg’s video is the only the first public acknowledgement of an idea Facebook has been tinkering with for months.

Recode quotes an unnamed source within the company saying Facebook hasn’t committed to the idea of paying publishers directly, and may still end up trying to entice publishers with ad revenue, bolstered by minimum guarantees. That source also says the company expects to have the news tab up and running by the end of 2019.

The European publisher offered another nugget of wisdom for Zuckerberg:

The better the business model is that Facebook provides for publishers, the more professional journalists you will attract. If it's only about reach and popularity, only about audience, the seduction to be a platform for manipulation is so high because people want to make a business. We have to make a business in order to finance investigative journalists and correspondents, and big foreign networks. They cannot afford to do that for free. But manipulators, governments from Russia to China, other sinister sources, they can all use it, abuse it, and then you have an image problem for Facebook, but also a structure problem for journalism. So I would focus on making sure what makes the offering and it's structuring on Facebook attractive for the hundreds of thousands of journalists, bloggers, digital native publishers, legacy publishers. And that will automatically resolve the quality issue.

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