The company is paying publishers directly for their work, but will an audience show up for it?
Facebook began testing a new home for news in its mobile app today called Facebook News. It will roll out to a few hundred thousand users in the United States and host reporting from big publishers, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and BuzzFeed. Facebook is paying some (but not all) participating publishers for their work, offering a welcome new revenue stream for the ever-challenged media industry — at least for as long as it lasts.
“People want and benefit from personalized experiences on Facebook, but we know there is reporting that transcends individual experience,” Facebook said in a blog post. “We want to support both.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is scheduled to discuss the new tab onstage today with News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson at an event in New York City.
Facebook News will be curated by a team of human editors in a fashion similar to the one Apple takes for its news app. It’s led by a feature called Today’s Stories, which contains the day’s top events. The tab is also personalized based on what you read, the company says, with the tab serving up a better reflection of your interests over time.
You can also personalize the tab by using controls to hide publishers, articles, and subjects you are not interested in seeing.
As you would expect in a general interest news publication, the tab includes dedicated sections for business, entertainment, science and technology, health, and sports. If you subscribe to one or more of the publishers in the tab, you can view those subscriptions in a dedicated section. (Why you would do this, instead of just using the publisher’s app, escapes me.)
Facebook says its team of curators is independent and “free from editorial intervention by anyone at the company.” It also posted its guidelines for story selection, a preemptive move to quell inevitable cries of bias about curators’ picks.
The company would not disclose how many publishers are participating at launch, saying it is adding new ones all the time. They are a mix of general news, local news, topical news, and news from publishers serving diverse communities.
To qualify for inclusion, publishers need to register as news pages and follow the company’s publisher guidelines. They have to have a “sufficiently large audience,” and they are forbidden from posting misinformation, hate speech, or other violations of Facebook’s community standards.
The best-case scenario for the news tab is that lots of people will seek it out and find much higher-quality news there than they would in the outrage-bait minefield of the News Feed. That could incentivize Facebook to pay more publishers, and at higher rates, supporting the journalism industry and also tossing a lifeline to our beleaguered democracy.
At the same time, Facebook has a long history of broken promises with publishers. Facebook News is still only a test, and the last time the company put all its news in a separate tab, it went very badly. (The big difference this time around is that news will continue to appear in the News Feed; Facebook News is in addition to your normal Facebook news diet.)
To me, the big question looming over Facebook News is whether people will bother tapping the new tab to begin with. Facebook is already a bit of a junk drawer, filled with features most people never to bother to use. With billions of users, getting even a small percentage of people to tap on Facebook News could still represent a large audience. But because Facebook News may seem redundant to heavy News Feed users, it’s unclear that they will.
Still, I’m hopeful. Facebook supporting journalism with direct payments in exchange for high-quality journalism strikes me as a rare win-win for publishers and platforms. Now to see whether an audience shows up for it.