Facebook plans to launch a "News" tab on Friday that will offer stories from hundreds of news organizations, some of which will be paid fees for supplying content to the service, say people familiar with the plan.
The move, which will put the social media giant squarely back into the news-delivery business after having de-emphasized it last year, is seen within the news industry as a step toward the long-sought goal of having technology companies pay for the content they deliver to users. The "News" tab also will put Facebook into direct competition with the news aggregation services offered by Silicon Valley rivals Google and Apple.
Facebook's service will include some human curation by a small editorial team of journalists, who will select top stories. But mostly the "News" tab will rely on computerized algorithms that seek to match user interests with offerings from a wide range of reports on politics, sports, health, technology, entertainment and other subjects.
Facebook was a leading distributor of news ahead of an overhaul in January 2018, when it altered its algorithm to direct more "meaningful" posts from family members and friends into user News Feeds after controversy about the prevalence of false and misleading news reports and allegations that Facebook favoured liberal points of view.
This retreat hurt the traffic of many publishers, and Facebook's move this week may help restore some of that audience - though not in News Feeds but in a separate "News" tab users can choose to click or ignore.
The list of participating news organizations, initially totalling about 200, will include The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, BuzzFeed News and many local news sources, say people familiar with the developing plans. These people say the New York Times is likely to participate as well, though the terms have not been finalized. (The company declined to comment.)
Facebook also plans to offer local news sources from the nation's 10 largest markets and, eventually, a digest of local reports within the "News" tab, said a person familiar with the company's plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to divulge details not yet public.
Facebook declined to say which news organizations will participate or the timing of the service's launch but acknowledged the brewing plans in broad terms. Facebook has a scheduled event in New York Friday featuring Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp., parent company of the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. An invitation for the event promises "a first look at Facebook News."
"Working with the news industry to get Facebook's News tab right is our goal and focus this year. We are getting tremendous partner feedback on the product, and looking forward to launching this very soon," said Campbell Brown, Facebook's vice president for global news partnerships and a former CNN journalist. "I believe we can provide people on Facebook a better news experience."
Though some within the industry worry that Facebook's offering will have an uneven impact on news organizations - with the largest and most prosperous benefiting the most - the willingness to pay at least some participants has been praised by news executives eager to generate more revenue when their stories are featured by technology companies.
News executives long have complained that technology platforms have usurped their major revenue streams, such as classified and display advertising, while building the popularity of their brands on the work of professional journalists at traditional news organizations. Dozens of such news organizations have folded over the past decade and many others have grappled with steeply falling revenue, shrinking staffs and declining readership as Facebook, Google, Apple and others have emerged as some of the most profitable companies in the world.
Direct payments by Facebook, which several dozen news organizations are expected to receive, will range from the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on their size and contribution to the service. But others will gain only the ability to generate revenue from advertising when Facebook features their stories - along with a potential for more exposure to help build the visibility of their brands, say people familiar with Facebook's plans.
"We've got to have this for the whole news ecosystem," said David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, representing nearly 2,000 U.S.-based news organizations. "So while it's a start, and a good start, it's not a comprehensive solution."
Facebook joins a small but growing Silicon Valley trend in agreeing to pay for news, most visibly Apple with its Apple News+ subscription service, which for $9.99 a month offers a magazine-heavy mix of news sources that includes the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. But several other major news organizations, including The Washington Post and the Times, declined to join amid complaints that its financial terms were unappealing and offered little opportunity for publishers to generate meaningful revenue or attract new paying subscribers. (Apple also runs another service, called Apple News, that is free to users and has a wide range of sources.)
"There's a really healthy trend where virtually every major platform - with the notable exception of Google - is working seriously on how to compensate news publishers for the value we're adding to their service," said Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, who declined to confirm whether his news organization was participating in the Facebook program.
In addition to the Wall Street Journal, the Facebook News tab will feature other properties of parent company Dow Jones such as Barron's, MarketWatch and Financial News. Facebook users will still need to have subscriptions to read much of the Journal's content, which has one of the industry's strictest paywalls.
The Facebook News tab will respect such paywall policies, including at the Post where all users can access some stories but extensive reading generally requires a subscription. Facebook users who click on stories that are available to only subscribers - or who run through their allotted total of free ones - will be invited to sign up for subscriptions.
After years during which publishers experimented widely with various types of free news offerings - typically backed by online ads - subscription revenue is increasingly central to the budgets and future plans of many news organizations.
Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said Tuesday that The Post would join the Facebook News service, confirming previous reports in the Journal and elsewhere.
Many news organizations, including The Post, already share content extensively on Facebook through accounts they control, generating readership that can be monetized through advertising.
A previous effort by Facebook to highlight news links that human editors selected, through a section called "trending," sparked controversy in 2016 over allegations that the editors suppressed stories featuring conservative points of view. Though the claims were not proven, they fueled complaints that Facebook throttles conservative voices. Facebook later shut down the "trending" section.
Facebook's latest investment in news comes at a time when the company is facing rising political and regulatory pressure from federal and state officials, as well as complaints that it has not done enough to combat the disinformation that spread widely on the platform in the 2016 presidential election and beyond.
News industry analyst Ken Doctor said Facebook was risking backlash by choosing to pay some publishers but not others. But he said most executives will welcome the creation of the "News" tab for moving toward a goal for which they have long lobbied - payment for their work.
"The details of this thing are going to be important," Doctor said.
© The Washington Post 2019