Facebook news feed change leaves media out in the cold

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

Last week, Meta announced a major change to its Facebook service. Instead of a user’s “news feed” being composed primarily of content from friends and other accounts a user has chosen to follow, the main feed on a user’s Facebook page will be an algorithmically-filtered collection of content from anywhere, and posts from a user’s friends will be moved to a separate page. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, wrote about the proposed changes in May, and now the redesigned feeds are in the process of being rolled out to Facebook’s three billion daily users. As part of these changes, Sara Fischer of Axios also reported that the term “news feed” is being retired as a descriptor for the main feed on a user’s page. Facebook first introduced the news feed in 2006, as a way of making it easy for users to see what all their friends were doing in one place, and while the new feature was not well received by some, it soon became the main interface for the social network, and the driving force behind Facebook’s growth as an advertising vehicle.

According to Axios, one reason why the main feed will no longer be called a “news feed” is that Meta is “de-emphasizing its investment in news content”. The Wall Street Journal reported that Campbell Brown, the head of global media partnerships for Meta, said last week the company is “reallocating resources away from its Facebook News tab, and its Bulletin newsletter platform.” This kind of reallocation—which may be driven in part by the financial pressure the company is under—could mean an end to the payments Meta has been making for the past three years to news publishers who agreed to have their content featured on a separate News tab. Facebook News was launched in 2019, after years of complaints from publishers such as Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp., about Facebook stealing content from media companies. The Journal reported that Meta has paid a total of $90 million a year to about 200 news outlets, including more than $15 million a year to the Washington Post, and more than $20 million a year to the New York Times.

Even at the time, many saw the Facebook News launch as primarily a public relations exercise, rather than a sign of any ongoing commitment to the media industry or journalism. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, wrote that a one-on-one interview between Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp—parent company of Dow Jones and the Journal—and Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, was “a publicity coup for Facebook,” a sign that it had “tamed the biggest beast in the journalism jungle”. Only a year before the new payments were announced, Zuckerberg seemed skeptical of the idea of paying publishers for their news content, saying “I’m not sure that makes sense”. Since then, Meta has been forced to make payments to news publishers in Australia, after that country passed a law that compelled digital platforms to negotiate licensing deals or have them imposed by the government. (Several countries such as Canada and the UK have proposed similar legislation).

The end of the Facebook News tab, and the tacit admission that the main user feed no longer qualifies as a “news feed,” are only the most recent signs that Meta and Facebook’s interest in news continues to decline—apart from payments it is forced to make by legislation, and the remains of a few token programs such as the Meta Journalism Project, which hands out grants and training to local news outlets. When the project was first launched in 2017, as a kind of competitor to the Google News Initiative, Facebook’s announcement made promises about how publishers would be able to use the company’s “Instant Articles” format to generate revenue, and how they would be trained to use Crowdtangle, an analytical tool for social platforms that Facebook acquired. Many have since found Instant Articles to be a bust in terms of revenue, and Crowdtangle appears to be in the process of being dismantled, in part because some Meta executives believe it allowed the media too much access to Facebook data.

Facebook’s history in dealing with the news media is filled with a number of similar examples of promises that have led to disappointment. In 2016, as the Nieman Journalism Lab notes, Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives started “pushing the notion that news video on Facebook was publishers’ bright future, a “new golden age”. The metrics Facebook was using to measure engagement with news video later turned out to be overstated, however, and the company paid a group of news publishers—who had committed significant resources to this new pivot-to-video strategy—$40 million to settle a lawsuit over that fact (although Facebook did not admit any wrongdoing). The Wall Street Journal later reported that the shift to more video in the news feed might have actually driven engagement down rather than up, meaning news publishers actually wound up worse off as a result of following the social network’s advice. An attempt to help push traffic to local news publishers also proved to be a bust.

All of these experiences have come on top of the continued down-ranking of professional news publishing content by the Facebook algorithm. In the latest change, in 2018, Facebook said it was de-emphasizing content from news publishers because users told the company that “public content—posts from businesses, brands and media—is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other,” according to a blog post written by Zuckerberg. At the time, Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic that Facebook was doing the media a favor. “It has forced media to face the fact that digital advertising and ever-growing web traffic will never sustain the industry,” he wrote, “especially if that traffic comes from monopolies like Facebook.” Now, media companies will get to learn that lesson all over again, as their content is forced to compete in a new algorithm-driven feed run by company that is trying to compete with TikTok.

Here’s more on Facebook:

Disinfo rethink: Meta said it has asked its Oversight Board of independent advisors for advice on how to handle misinformation around COVID-19. Nick Clegg, Meta’s head of global affairs, wrote in a blog post that while the company remains committed to combating COVID-19 misinformation, it is asking the board to consider “whether we should address this misinformation through other means, like labeling or demoting it either directly or through our third-party fact-checking program”.

Virtually blocked: The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday filed for an injunction to block Meta, the parent company of Facebook, from buying a virtual reality company called Within, according to a report in the New York Times. “The antitrust lawsuit is the first to be filed under Lina Khan, the commission’s chair and a leading progressive critic of corporate concentration, against one of the tech giants,” the Times reported. “Khan has argued that regulators must stop violations of competition and consumer protection laws when it comes to the bleeding edge of technology, including virtual and augmented reality, and not just in areas where the companies have already become behemoths.”

Literally anxious: Anxiety has been increasing among Facebook staff as Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, ratchets up the pressure in order to compete with TikTok, some reports say. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg said on the June 30th call, according to a recording obtained by The Verge. “And part of my hope by raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might just say that this place isn’t for you. And that self-selection is okay with me.”

Celebrity critics: Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian, two of the most well-known celebrities on Instagram, with a combined 686 million followers, both posted story updates on their accounts on Monday asking Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) to “stop trying to be TikTok.” The two were reacting to changes the service has made to its feeds, with more algorithmically-recommended content and less content from friends and other accounts a user has chosen to follow. “Make Instagram Instagram again (stop trying to be TikTok. I just want to see cute photos of my friends),” Jenner and Kardashian both wrote.

Other notable stories:

GOP politicians are “increasingly shirking sit-down interviews, barring journalists from 2022 events, and skipping debates,” Charlotte Klein wrote for Vanity Fair. At the annual Republican “Sunshine Summit” in Florida, “many local and national mainstream outlets were unable to get press credentials, according to the Tallahassee Democrat,” Klein writes, “including the Miami Herald, Politico, Florida Politics, the New York Times, and the Washington Post“. A Florida wire service, the Wall Street Journal, and Business Insider were among the few mainstream outlets allowed to cover the event. Meanwhile, Paul Farhi profiled Christina Pushaw, the press secretary for Ron DeSantis.

Vox Media is laying off 39 people—about two percent of its current workforce—in an effort to prepare for a potential economic downturn, Sara Fischer reported for Axios. “The company is laying off staffers in a few key areas, including recruiting, some editorial roles and sales,” Fischer wrote. “The cuts are targeted towards certain parts of the company, including some departments within its lifestyle site, Thrillist.” A source told Axios that Vox plans to continue to hire for certain critical roles, but will reduce the pace of hiring.

Sheila Rayam has been named executive editor of The Buffalo News, the first Black journalist and only the second woman to hold that position in the 142-year history of the newspaper, The News announced on Wednesday. “Rayam has been the executive editor of Gannett’s Mohawk Valley news operations, including the Utica Observer-Dispatch, since April 2021,” the paper wrote. “Prior to that, she spent three decades rising through the ranks at the Democrat & Chronicle after graduating from SUNY Buffalo State.”

Vanessa Pappas, the COO of TikTok, announced on Wednesday that the company will soon give researchers access to much of the platform’s data and to its moderation systems, The Verge reported. “Pappas says TikTok will soon provide access to the ‘public and anonymized data’ on the platform so ‘selected researchers’ can “assess content and trends or conducts tests,” The Verge wrote. “Later this year, researchers will have access to TikTok’s moderation tools at its transparency center, a virtual hub where people can learn more about TikTok’s policies and get updates about the changes it’s making.” TikTok has come under fire for the connections that Bytedance, its parent company, has to China.

For CJR, Jem Bartholomew talked with Becca Ricks, a senior researcher at the Mozilla Foundation, whose investigative work highlighted how partisan influencers are evading TikTok’s weak political ad policies. “We zeroed in on conservative organizations like Turning Point USA,” Ricks said. “They’re a nonprofit and they have a dedicated influencer program that’s specifically targeted at funding young conservative content creators on social media. We found a number of influencers who had been flown out to their events or had talked about their relationship with TPUSA.”

Disney on Wednesday confirmed that it will allow political issue ads on the Hulu streaming service, effective immediately, according to Axios. “Hulu has prohibited issue advertising for years, although it has accepted candidate advertising. But now that Disney has majority control over the streamer, it’s moving to integrate Hulu’s policies to match Disney’s,” the site reported. Democratic party groups were upset prior to the change that Hulu was blocking ads related to abortion and gun control.

Grace Abels writes for Politifact about two Facebook pages that say they provide “newsy and up-to-the-minute coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” but actually spread dangerous misinformation. “On a given day, their followers might see videos claiming Norwegians raided Russian ships, Vladimir Putin was defeated on ‘all fronts,’ or that a single British ship blocked a Russian fleet,” Abels writes. “None of those headlines are true. But that doesn’t stop the pages from earning clicks, views and a monetizable following.”

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