Facebook and paying for news

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On June 9, Keach Hagey and Alexandra Bruell—two Wall Street Journal reporters who cover the major digital platforms—reported that Facebook, a subsidiary of Meta Platforms, was “re-examining its commitment to paying for news,” according to several unnamed sources who were described as being familiar with Facebook’s plans. The potential loss of those payments, the Journal reporters wrote, was “prompting some news organizations to prepare for a potential revenue shortfall of tens of millions of dollars.” The Journal story echoed a report published in May by The Information, a subscription-only site that covers technology; in that piece, reporters Sylvia Varnham O’Regan and Jessica Toonkel said Meta was “considering reducing the money it gives news organizations as it reevaluates the partnerships it struck over the past few years,” and that this reevaluation was part of a rethinking of “the value of including news in its flagship Facebook app.”

Meta wouldn’t comment to either the Journal or The Information, and a spokesperson told CJR the company “doesn’t comment on speculation.” But the loss of payments from Meta could have a noticeable impact for some outlets. According to the Journal report, for the past two years—since the original payment deals were announced in 2019— Meta has paid the Washington Post more than $15 million per year, the New York Times over $20 million per year, and the Journal more than $10 million per year (the payments to the Journal are part of a broader deal with Dow Jones, the newspaper’s parent, which is said to be worth more than $20 million per year). The deals, which are expected to expire this year, were part of a broader system of payments Meta made to a number of news outlets, including Bloomberg, ABC News, USA Today, Business Insider, and the right-wing news site Breitbart News. Smaller deals were typically for $3 million or less, the Journal said.

The payments were announced as part of the launch of the “News tab,” a dedicated section of the Facebook app where readers can find news from the outlets that partnered with Meta (higher payments were made to those with paywalls, according to a number of reports). The launch was a high-profile affair, including a one-on-one interview between Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp.—parent company of Dow Jones and the Journal—and Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote for CJR that the meeting was like “a Camp David for peace between the most truculent old media empire and one of its most noxious disruptors,” and wondered how much it had cost for News Corp. to forget about its long-standing opposition to Facebook’s media strategy. The event was “a publicity coup for Facebook; it tamed the biggest beast in the journalism jungle,” Bell wrote.

Bell is not the only media industry observer to note that Facebook’s payments to media outlets have felt more like a marketing ploy than a sign of a deep and abiding commitment to journalism. “The correct way to view Google and Facebook’s actions, I believe, is through the lens of PR,” wrote Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, a year or so after the launch of the News tab, when Google announced something very similar. “The troubles of the news business are a major PR problem for these companies, who — however fair they or anyone else thinks it is — get blamed for its ills.” The move to pay media companies did seem like a rather dramatic shift in Facebook’s viewpoint: a little over a year before the launch of the News tab, Zuckerberg seemed to be skeptical that paying the media for content was something worth doing. “I’m not sure that makes sense,” he told Vox, during an interview in 2018, after being asked about a proposal from Rupert Murdoch that the social network should pay “carriage fees” for news content.

As Benton and others have noted, the decision to pay publishers—after years of refusing to do so, despite repeated complaints—came amid rising pressure, from legislators in multiple jurisdictions, aimed at getting Google and Facebook to compensate the media industry for the harms allegedly done to it by the digital platforms’ control of online advertising. That kind of pressure has been a fairly constant drumbeat in the industry for the past 15 years or so, after publishers in Spain, France, and Germany started pushing for legislation that would compel Google to pay for reusing content from news sites. A desire to quell this kind of legislation was part of why Google launched what became its Google News Initiative, in which it committed to pay publishers $300 million for training, internships, and other partnership arrangements. Facebook made similar kinds of commitments with its Facebook Journalism Project, which launched in 2017.

The pressure on Google and Facebook to pay publishers ramped up with the passing of legislation in Australia in 2021, which forced platforms to sign licensing deals with media outlets or face arbitration. Both companies eventually signed a number of deals with publishers (although there was criticism that smaller outlets were left out), and other countries such as Canada and the UK are expected to pass similar laws soon. According to the Journal, Zuckerberg has been “disappointed” by these regulatory efforts, which have reportedly “damped [his] enthusiasm for making news a bigger part of Facebook’s offerings.” And Meta has apparently noticed that “fewer people have been clicking on links to news articles since President Donald Trump left office,” according to The Information. The company also appears to be much more focused on promoting short-form video—as a way of competing with TikTok, the popular video-sharing platform—than appeasing publishers, which could leave even large media players out in the cold.

Here’s more on Facebook:

  • The irony: In 2018, I wrote for CJR about how Google and Facebook had become the two largest funders of media and journalism in the world, and the risks of depending on them as a source of revenue. “The irony is hard to miss,” I wrote. “The dismantling of the traditional advertising model—largely at the hands of the social networks, which have siphoned away the majority of industry ad revenue—has left many media companies and journalistic institutions in desperate need of a lifeline. Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are happy to oblige, flush with cash from their ongoing dominance of the digital ad market.”
  • Loss of trust: When the News tab was announced, Josh Constine of TechCrunch wrote that Facebook shouldn’t be trusted. “Are we really doing this again?” he asked. “After the pivot to video. After Instant Articles. After news was deleted from the News Feed. Once more, Facebook dangles extra traffic, and journalism outlets leap through its hoop and into its cage.” Publishers, Constine argued, should have learned the risks of relying on the platforms. “When you build on someone else’s land, don’t be surprised when you’re bulldozed. And really, given Facebook’s flawless track record of pulling the rug out from under publishers, no one should be surprised.”
  • Amplification: New research indicates that changes to the Facebook recommendation algorithm amplified the reach of Republican posts and content during the first half of 2019. “We conclude that it seems possible that changes in how Facebook rated content led to a doubling of the total shares of local Republican party posts compared to local Democratic party posts in the first half of 2019 even though Democratic parties posted more often during this period,” the scientists who conducted the research wrote. “The fact that private companies can so easily control the political information flow for millions of Americans raises clear questions for the state of democracy.”
  • Failure to detect: Facebook failed to detect violent hate speech in advertisements submitted to the platform by the non-profit groups Global Witness and Foxglove, the Guardian reported. “The hateful messages focused on Ethiopia, where internal documents obtained by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed that Facebook’s ineffective moderation is fanning ethnic violence”, as she said in her 2021 congressional testimony,” the paper wrote. In March, Global Witness ran a similar test with hate speech in advertisements in Myanmar, which Facebook also reportedly failed to detect.

Other notable stories:

  • A fisherman confessed that he helped kill Dom Phillips, a freelance reporter for The Guardian, and Bruno Araújo Pereira, a former government official who worked in the area to combat illegal fishing and mining, according to a report from the New York Times. “It was a grim breakthrough in the 10-day search for the missing men deep in the Amazon that has transfixed Brazil and provoked international outrage,” the paper reported. The two men disappeared on June 5, while traveling on the Itaquaí River in a remote area of the Amazon, near the borders with Peru and Colombia. Reuters, meanwhile, reported that the fisherman and his brother both confessed to killing Phillips and Pereira.
  • Brazil is “on the brink of a disinformation disaster,” writes Julia Angwin, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup, a data-driven research organization. The country goes to the polls to elect a president in October, she says, and it “appears to be headed in the same contentious direction as the U.S. presidential election of 2020. Even before voting has begun, the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, has already started talking about voting irregularities—raising concerns that he might not concede defeat should he lose.” Bolsonaro has also repeatedly brought up the election of Joe Biden in the United States, suggesting that votes were rigged in some way.
  • First Draft News, a research organization that trains journalists to recognize and handle misinformation and disinformation, is shutting down, according to a post from co-founder Claire Wardle. But most of the operation is moving to Brown University to become part of the recently launched Information Futures Lab, an initiative from Brown’s School of Public Health. First Draft started as a nonprofit coalition in 2015, Wardle writes, and since then has trained more than 10,000 journalists and other professionals, and has helped work on misinformation projects as part of almost 20 elections in various countries.
  • Covering Climate Now, a partnership that CJR and The Nation created in 2019, announced the winners of the Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards on Wednesday, the second year that the awards have been handed out. The list of winners includes journalists at The Guardian, Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera English, PBS, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, the Los Angeles Times, and WGBH-PRX. Justin Worland, senior correspondent for Time, was named Climate Journalist of the Year.
  • The Los Angeles Times profiled the Martinez brothers, crusading journalists from El Salvador who have been forced to do their work from Mexico because they fear their reporting on the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, could get them arrested. “Bukele has built a sprawling state-run media machine that is guided by daily opinion polling while at the same time surveilling independent journalists with spyware and drones, punishing government officials for leaking information, and lobbing tax fraud and money-laundering accusations at El Faro, the investigative news site where the Martínez brothers work,” the Times reported. In April, Bukele approved a law that threatens any journalist who reports on gangs with up to 15 years in prison.
  • Posting content about the recent defamation trial involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard led to dramatic increases in revenue for YouTube creators, Business Insider reported. According to Playboard, a company that tracks revenue for leading YouTube channels, a former district attorney who posted videos about the trial made close to $170,000 between April and June, and that was after YouTube took its 30 percent share of the channel’s revenue. Emily Baker told Business Insider that her livestream during the announcement of the verdict brought in 370,000 concurrent viewers, and that she makes far more creating YouTube content than she ever did as an attorney.
  • Factwire, an independent news entity in Hong Kong, announced that it is closing, Variety reported. Although the outlet didn’t cite any specific reason for the closure, some observers noted that it is the fourth independent news organization to close its doors in the past year, and that this is likely a result of a crackdown on press freedom by the Chinese government. Factwire, which specialized in investigative reporting, was established in 2015 using funds raised by a crowdfunding campaign.
  • Check My Ads, an organization that tries to pressure advertisers who sponsor right-wing content, has started a new campaign aimed at ads that run on Fox News, Gizmodo reported. But in contrast to other such attempts, the current campaign is focused on trying to get ad networks and ad exchanges to drop Fox as a client. “We’re kicking off by focusing on many of the same exchanges we previously contacted over their ties to various insurrectionists,” Claire Atkin, one of the groups’ co-founders, told Gizmodo. “She noted that while some of the exchanges—Yahoo is among the group’s targets—cut off ad-dollar access to digital properties from Steve Bannon, they remain tethered to Fox News’s site.”

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