Zuckerberg cares about journalism, but doesn’t want to pay for it

The news is “incredibly important to society and democracy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told reporters at an invitation-only event following his address to developers at the company’s F8 conference on Tuesday. But apparently that doesn’t mean the giant social network has any plans to actually pay for it directly, the way media insiders like BuzzFeed publisher Jonah Peretti believe that he should. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” Zuckerberg said when the idea was raised. Instead, he says the company wants to help media companies sell more subscriptions and generate more revenue from readers. The Atlantic writes:

At one point, Zuckerberg hinted at the need for government subsidy of American journalism—alluding to the public-television licensing model that supports the BBC. Couldn’t Facebook pay publishers directly by licensing their stories or programming? “Yeah,” Zuckerberg said, “I’m not sure that makes sense.” “I think news is incredibly important to society and democracy,” he added. “It’s just that it’s a pretty small minority” of what people are reading on Facebook.

The Facebook CEO also announced that the social network has already started elevating certain preferred news sources in the News Feed based on whether users rank them as trustworthy, a controversial approach that Zuckerberg announced earlier this year. The controversy stems from the fact that trust is an incredibly slippery concept when it comes to news — for example, surveys show that a many conservative voters don’t trust mainstream media sources like CNN, but do trust Breitbart and Fox News.

At some point, selecting “high quality” sources of news means Facebook is going to be deciding who is worthy of showing in the News Feed and who isn’t, which could have a significant impact on the traffic and revenue generated by those who are chosen and those who aren’t. Already, some publishers like Mic have seen their Facebook engagement decline by more than 90 percent, and the ranking process has only just begun. But Zuckerberg said the platform’s responsibility to news only goes so far:

“People come to Facebook primarily not to consume news but to communicate with people,” Zuckerberg said. “The way we can help out the most with that is by helping out with a business model that is profitable and sustainable for news organizations.”

Given the fact that Facebook is going to be selecting winners and losers in the media sphere, it’s interesting that Zuckerberg’s comments were made to a specific group of publications, including CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Recode and the Economist. The choice of who to include wasn’t made by Facebook, however — the group is part of an annual event called Off The Record, organized by The Information founder Jessica Lessin, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and Quartz editor Kevin Delaney.

Considering the sensitivity around what Zuckerberg was discussing, it was probably smart of him to go on the record with his comments, since there are already enough people out there suspicious of what Facebook is doing to the media industry behind the scenes. The bottom line seems to be that he cares about journalism, but apart from some tweaks to the News Feed and some help with subscriptions, he’s not prepared to do a whole lot about it. And perhaps that’s ultimately a good thing.

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