Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
Journalists who cover Facebook get used to feeling a sense of deja vu, since the social networking behemoth often tends to revisit things it has tried to do once—or even multiple times—in the past. The company says that’s because it is committed to “iterating” (as tech founders like to call it), which means trying the same thing over and over until it comes out right. The idea of employing journalists to curate the news definitely falls into that category. Facebook has said it is planning to roll out a new standalone tab for news, for which it is cutting lucrative deals with a number of leading publishers like The New York Times and Washington Post. And it is also hiring a handful of professional editors to curate the top headlines. But will the social network manage to make this unlikely marriage of humans and algorithms work any better than it did the last time?
Facebook’s previous attempt to curate the news turned into what could only be described as a fiasco. The company hired human editors to help select headlines for its “trending topics” feature, which began in 2014 as an attempt to compete with Twitter as a breaking news platform, run by Facebook’s all-powerful algorithm. All seemed to be going well, until Gizmodo ran a story in 2016 that quoted some of the company’s hired editors admitting that they often deliberately excluded some conservative websites from the trending topics lineup. The truth of the matter turned out to be much more nuanced than the headline portrayed it (as even the editor of the piece later admitted), but the damage was done. Conservatives soon howled that Facebook was biased against them, and the company scrambled to apologize and make amends. The human editors were fired, and eventually the feature was shut down completely.
This was arguably the genesis of the long-standing conspiracy theory that Facebook is biased against conservatives, something that has been raised time and time again by pundits—not to mention the White House and Congress—despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence to support it (and in fact significant evidence to the contrary). The idea of a separate news tab has also been tried before, although in a slightly different way. In 2018, Facebook ran an experiment in six countries where it removed news from the News Feed completely, and put it all in a separate tab called Explore. This also failed miserably, as several Facebook executives admitted, and eventually the experiment was scrapped. “People don’t want two separate feeds,” said Chris Cox, who at the time was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s second-in-command. One big problem with the tab: virtually no one ever went there, which (needless to say) left news publishers concerned about the impact on their traffic.
So what’s different this time? For one thing, unlike in the Explore experiment, the company says news will continue to appear in the regular News Feed, as well as in the new tab. The new location will also be prominently featured, and presumably will also be highlighted and recommended by the News Feed algorithm. The company claims it has learned from the Trending Topics affair, and is looking to hire professional journalists rather than freelancers with little industry experience (a description that some of the previous round of curators dispute). In any case, this is likely to do little to assuage critics who are eager to play the bias card, of course, and the fact that Facebook is paying a select group of outlets could actually make it worse instead of better. The list of who makes the cut and who doesn’t will no doubt be pored over for evidence of bias and favoritism.
The Trending Topics debacle may have been a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, but one of the main ripple effects was that Facebook showed itself to be highly vulnerable to those who try to “work the refs,” as some call the lobbying and pressure tactics by conservative groups, to the point where the company seemed to be bending over backwards to appease the right wing. Whether it will do any better this time around is an open question.
Here’s more on Facebook, the news, and conservative bias:
Short on facts: After repeated complaints about Facebook’s alleged bias, the company agreed to let former Senator John Kyl conduct a “bias audit,” the details of which were released this week. Casey Newton of The Verge says the report is “long on feelings and short on facts.” Critics of the effort point out that it is based on interviews with 133 conservative individuals and groups, which makes it feel more like a list of grievances than a scientific audit.
Forced integration: Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote for CJR about Facebook’s proposal to pay media outlets for their news. The offer highlights the fact that “the slow, forced integration of news into large tech companies continues,” she wrote. “Will news outlets be able to resist the allure of additional funding from Facebook?”
Check please: Meanwhile, as part of its ongoing shift towards longer-form video, Facebook continues to pay media companies to produce shows for its Watch video feature. According to Axios, the company is funding two new shows from BuzzFeed, part of an estimated $90 million or so the social network has committed to spent on shows produced by a number of media outlets.
Other notable stories:
Lewis Raven Wallace writes for Nieman Reports about how trans journalists are challenging newsrooms. “We are asking journalism leaders to confront the structural barriers that make it hard for trans people, particularly trans people of color, to enter and remain in the industry,” Wallace writes. While the number of trans journalists has increased, there are still few in leadership positions.
Last week, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito apologized for taking money from Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself in jail after being arrested on charges of sex trafficking, and shortly afterward Media Lab veteran Ethan Zuckerman said he was resigning over the issue. On Wednesday, researcher Nathan Matias, said he is also resigning as a result of the revelations about Epstein’s ties to the Lab.
Jeremy Gordon writes for CJR about whether music journalism will be able to overcome its access problem. Access-driven writing is “increasingly repetitive and less revelatory than it ever has been,” Gordon writes. More and more media outlets that are pressed for time and resources are running interviews and profiles taken from the same homogenous pool of artists, and criticism is “incentivized by the same celebrity model,” says Gordon.
Game Informer, one of the largest-circulation magazines in the US, has abruptly laid off almost half of its editorial staff. The magazine is published by GameStop, a chain of video-game stores that has been struggling financially. The company laid off more than a hundred employees on Tuesday, including seven of the magazine’s editors (one of whom was on vacation, according to Kotaku).
Bloomberg writes about The Athletic, the fast-growing, sports-journalism startup that says it now has over 600,000 subscribers paying an average of $64 a year, and expects to end the year with more than a million. The company now has about 400 editorial staffers, and recently hired away several top sports journalists from a number of British outlets, but has yet to make a profit.
In 2016, Breitbart News was cut off by digital advertising network AppNexus because the company’s CEO said he could no longer stomach serving ads on the right-wing site next to anti-immigration screeds and other hate speech. But now The Verge reports that AT&T, which acquired AppNexus last year, has reinstated Breitbart. The site “inquired how it could return to our platform, satisfied our requirements, and is reinstated,” said a representative.
Han Zhang writes for The New Yorker about College Daily, a fast-growing online news site aimed at Chinese college students in the US. The site’s articles often get more than a million pageviews, Zhang says, thanks to being widely shared on WeChat, the popular Chinese social networking app. But the College Daily newsroom also has a host of rules for its writers, including a ban on terms like Dalai Lama and Falun Gong (a banned religious group), and its coverage of the protests in Hong Kong expresses support for the police.
James Poniewozik of the Times writes about former White House press secretary Sean Spicer joining the cast of the TV show Dancing With the Stars, and how it’s a depressing example of the ease with which even a professional liar like Spicer can rehabilitate their image thanks to the power of network television. “To treat Spicer, and his reason for notoriety, as a harmless joke is to whitewash the harm of what he did,” writes the Times critic.
Kyle Chayka writes for The Nation about former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s latest media venture, a weekly subscription email newsletter known as Air Mail. Chayka calls it “a newsletter for the rich and boring,” and “an exercise in misplaced nostalgia for the heyday of glossy magazines.” The newsletter tries hard to recapture some of the glory days of mag publishing, Chayka says, but its tone is “labored and humorless” rather than ironic.