Facebook wants to be relevant in news again, and it’s willing to pay millions to bring back publishers

Facebook wants to be relevant in news again, and it’s willing to pay millions to bring back publishers

Facebook is approaching big-name news publishers hoping to secure licensing deals to republish stories and other news content, reports The Wall Street Journal. The deals could be worth millions of dollars per publisher, with Facebook reportedly offering up to $3 million a year for licensing rights for some outlets. Among those in early discussions are Disney-owned ABC News, Bloomberg, Dow Jones (also the parent company of the WSJ), and The Washington Post.

According to the report, Facebook plans to include these articles as part of dedicated news section its launching sometime this fall. Publishers would sign deals lasting as long as three years in some cases, and they would get control over how articles appear on Facebook and whether readers would receive only snippets, like a headline and some text, before being sent to the publisher’s website. The proposed terms stand in contrast to Apple’s approach to Apple News Plus, its new, magazine-focused subscription service with a dubious revenue share and reportedly poor payout metrics that has had many in the media industry warning against Silicon Valley’s pledge to rescue the news business.

The result of a successful Facebook courting, however, could be a revival of the massive amount of referral traffic Facebook used to drive to news publishers and media companies before it began downgrading pages and other, non-individualized forms of News Feed content a few years ago. Following the WSJ report, Facebook confirmed to CNBC that it was indeed launching a new, dedicated news tab this fall.

The push would be an evolution of Facebook’s ever-changing approach to news, which most recently has seen Facebook promote local content and ditch a plan to move publishers into a separate feed in its mobile app. Previous efforts have included deals with publishers to make video for its Facebook Live platform, deals with media and entertainment companies to license content and create original content for its Watch platform, and the ill-fated Instant Articles platform that Facebook once hoped would become a dominant standard for news stories.

Last year, Facebook seemed to pull back on its relationship with publishers, with the company’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, telling them to get off the platform if they did’t like it, and the company slashing Watch funding for news shows back in December. A few months prior to Brown’s statement, Rupert Murdoch, the executive chairman of publishing empire News Corporation, called on Facebook and Google to effectively subsidize the news business after destroying and replacing it with an algorithm-driven mess.

Overall, Facebook’s relationship with the news industry has been highly contentious. As it began attracting astronomical daily usage, Facebook siphoned away eyeballs and ad dollars from news sites. Alongside Google, Facebook now controls a majority of the digital advertising industry in the US, having effectively captured huge swaths of online ad revenue from newspapers, magazines, and digital media companies over the last decade or so.

In turn, Facebook also became a place where publishers hoped they could attract new readers and existing ones at unprecedented volumes. And for a while, that was true, with Facebook becoming a major source of traffic for all forms of media companies worldwide. The whims of the algorithms driving the Facebook News Feed became hugely influential in driving media trends, like the early 2010s rise in clickbait and the eventual, and economically fraught, shift to video.

But just as Facebook proved it could capture an audience and send it wherever it pleased, it could also take it away. As the company began running into issues with younger users abandoning the platform, it began de-prioritizing the types of content published by pages. It chose instead to start promoting the content of friends and family in hopes that would keep users from flocking to newer, more engaging social networks like Snapchat and its own subsidiary, Instagram. The result was the floor being pulled out from under a number of media companies, many of which suffered layoffs due to the steep drop-off in referral traffic and video views.

Now, Facebook appears to be willing to try its hand yet again at news, although this time on seemingly friendlier terms. The company is still in the midst of years-long controversy over its failure to reckon with its influence on society and the ways bad actors have manipulated its platform. And now, the company wants to bring publishers back in hopes it can reestablish itself as a destination for authoritative news and genuine discussion.

The issue, of course, is the past few years of rampant misinformation, fake news, and election interference that have often made Facebook an untrustworthy place to spend your time online. (That’s not to mention the scores of data privacy scandals that have eroded user trust in the platform’s integrity and the motives of the executives overseeing it.)

Whether its bots pushing propaganda, or digital detritus filling the News Feed with junk you don’t want from people or pages you don’t care about, Facebook has transformed into a little more than a digital yearbook and Rolodex for an aging class of social media users. Whether those same users are prepared, or even willing, to start getting their news from Facebook is an open question.

It’s also not clear what will come of this renewed effort to court publishers back to Facebook, but it’s clear the company sees its massive cash reserves as the key to winning journalists back to the table.

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