On Friday at the Paley Media Center in New York City, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and News Corp CEO Robert Thomson engaged in a frank discussion about the role of news media in informing conversation on Facebook’s platform. It came after the soft launch of Facebook News, a new curation product intended to spotlight top-quality daily news.
Zuckerberg said that he thinks Facebook News can reach 20 to 30 million people in the next few years, which he expects will expand to international markets in the future.
“It’s very clear that the work that the news industry does is … critical for democracy,” said Zuckerberg. “This is gonna be the first time ever that there is a dedicated space in the [Facebook] app focused on some high-quality journalism … [and] the first time we’re making multi-year financial commitments. We’ve gotten these secondary tabs to work.”
News launched for a subset of Facebook users in the U.S. this morning, accessible from a shortcut that appears in the toolbar at the bottom of Facebook’s mobile app. It highlights developing stories deemed relevant to the national conversation by curators who source from select publishers, and in addition original reporting from local publications in major metros including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington D.C., Miami, Atlanta, and Boston.
“I think in a lot of ways, local papers have probably been hit the hardest … I don’t think that [there’s even been one] sustainable business model around news,” said Zuckerberg. “[That’s why we’re] forming partnerships around this news tab and we’re going to include that [local] content.”
In News, a group of curators — who Facebook says are free from editorial intervention — populate a dedicated tab with articles chosen according to publicly available guidelines. Personalized content that isn’t manually aggregated, like regional and independent reporting, is selected algorithmically.
News allows users to choose which publishers they’d like to see and to hide articles and topics from those they’d rather not read. For users with subscriptions linked to their Facebook account, a new section collates the content they pay for. And Facebook says that News will eventually fold in content from Today In. By way of a refresher, Today In allows Facebook users to browse news, events, discussions, and more related to their current city, and it recently expanded to over 6,000 towns and cities across the U.S. (up from six in January).
That control — that choice and curation — is a vitally important part of the News experience, said Zuckerberg. “[We’re] making it so the content in the News tab is not a person is saying ‘I’ll follow in the New York Times’ or ‘I’ll follow the Fox News’ and then they get content from [those publications]. Rather, we have a team of people who are choosing which content to show, which creates a … dynamic where we have a reason to go out and pay for that content to get it into the system so that we can choose to show it.”
Facebook says that the list of publications at launch totals roughly 200. Notable among them is the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, the Washington Post, and Dow Jones properties like Barron’s, MarketWatch, and Financial News.
Facebook says it won’t provide News data to advertisers. However, Zuckerberg expressed an openness to the idea of providing publishers insights into the engagement behavior of their paying subscribers.
News launches at a trying time for Facebook — and for the news industry at large. While the former has been accused of shutting out conservative voices on its platform, the latter has suffered acutely the effects of shrinking advertising revenue. The Pew Research Center said that the number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 47% between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000.
Facebook has in recent years taken a number of steps to address criticism of its feed’s content mix. In April, the company outlined steps to stop scams and other “problematic” posts from going viral on the platform (particularly within private Facebook groups). And in 2016, it shut down a trending topics feature that a Gizmodo report alleged suppressed stories featuring conservative points of view.
Zuckerberg pushed back against the notion that Facebook or any of its properties, including Instagram, tunes its recommendation algorithms for engagement at any cost. “I basically [prohibit] any of our teams … from optimizing the systems to encourage the maximum engagement,” he said. “What we do [instead is that] we optimize … for facilitating as many meaningful interactions between people as possible.”
But he admitted that there have been mistakes. An algorithm tweak in May led to a decrease in viral video watching on Facebook by 15 million hours, leading to a $100 billion one-day dip in the company’s market cap.
“It’s taken us a while to get an appreciation for what the right way is our to support high-quality journalism,” said Zuckerberg. “We want as much of the [ad] revenue as possible that gets generated to go to publishers so that it’ll fund high-quality journalism.”
To this end, Zuckerberg during this afternoon’s fireside chat highlighted another initiative: the incubation of new media business models. Earlier this year, Facebook pledged to spend $300 million over three years across a number of journalism projects, including several nonprofit ventures that focus on local reporting.
“We have a lot of engineers and people working on trying to build … advanced technology for this — to give the vast majority of revenue to the publishers and in order to make that work,” he said.