A Q&A with Adam Mosseri about Facebook’s complicated relationship with the media

The man in charge of the Facebook News Feed, longtime senior executive Adam Mosseri, took questions about the company’s often acrimonious relationship with the media at a Columbia Journalism Review event in San Francisco on Thursday. Mosseri was interviewed by Jessica Lessin, who founded and runs The Information, a subscription-based technology news site. Facebook recently announced that Mosseri will be switching jobs, leaving the News Feed role to run Instagram, but he talked about the social network’s approach to news during an interview with Lessin and then took questions from the audience.

“I think it’s complicated,” Mosseri said when asked about the relationship that Facebook has with publishers and the media in general. “The news industry is going through a massive amount of change in a very short time. The Internet is changing how people consume not only news but all kinds of information, turning a lot of business models in the industry upside down, and we are part of that. We are trying to figure things out and we make mistakes but we are trying to do better. There are areas where we have really strong partnerships and areas where the relationships are incredibly antagonistic and everything in between.”

Mosseri addressed criticisms that when Facebook changes the way the News Feed algorithm works, it can often mean sudden and dramatic changes in the traffic publishers get. “There’s no way for me to guarantee stable distribution for any one publisher, it’s just not possible, even if we stopped changing how [algorithmic] ranking worked entirely,” he said. “People’s interests change, the news changes every day, there’s all sorts of competitive effects. So distribution is always going to be volatile.”

Mosseri also echoed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments about the idea of the social network compensating media companies directly for their content. “In terms of just paying publishers for news, I don’t think that scales very well,” he said. “There are too many publishers in too many countries all over the world for us to do that. It’s never going to be a way to support the entire industry, even if every dollar Facebook made went to the industry. Also, news publishers aren’t the only constituent we are beholden to.” Mosseri said the company believes a better approach is to help the media business develop new business models, “whether it’s video or like we’re trying to do with subscriptions.”

At one point in the discussion, Mosseri admitted that Facebook hasn’t always been as open about the experiments it conducts around new formats like video. The company is currently paying news publishers to create original content for its new Watch feature, but some remember how Facebook started doing something similar for short-form video with Facebook Live and a number of companies moved to focus on video and then found there wasn’t enough revenue to continue. “We need to be more transparent about how we do that kind of thing and get better at setting expectations,” Mosseri said. “I don’t think we did that well enough.”

When it comes to funding of journalism through grants or research or projects like the News Integrity Initiative, which CJR covered in this recent feature, Mosseri said the company does this because “we are interested in funding journalism in all sorts of ways. We believe news is incredibly important in the world, and informing people is important. And it also matters to the people who use our product.” He also talked about the company’s recent attempts to emphasize “trusted” news in the News Feed.

“There are a billion pieces of content posted every day, and tens of millions of publishers, so it’s just possible for us to have someone read every post and decide what is trustworthy,” he said. “So we tried to design a ranking system that would focus on trust but be difficult to game. It’s not just a popularity contest — even if lots of people say a source is trustworthy that doesn’t necessarily mean we will rank it highly, because it might just appeal to a narrow group of supporters. We look at how broad that trust is — we’re trying to look at the idea of broad experience, common ground, shared viewpoints to help prevent polarization.”

When asked whether Facebook was too slow in recognizing the problem with misinformation or fake news, Mosseri admitted that it was, but argued that this was part of a broader problem with Silicon Valley. “I definitely agree that the level of our investment wasn’t commensurate with the risk,” he said, “and I think that was a function of not fully appreciating how important the issue was and is. I think we were much less focused on the risks of what might happen, and that’s not just Facebook but the Valley in general.”

Mosseri also said that publishers should think differently about the audience they reach on Facebook vs those who come to their site. “There’s a big difference between someone who consumes something passively as they’re scrolling through something vs someone who goes to your site directly,” he said. “Facebook might be the majority of your traffic, but not the majority of people who care deeply about your content.”

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