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Sept. 28, 2017, 12:53 p.m.
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LINK: www.thestreet.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   September 28, 2017

Facebook is trying to climb out of a maelstrom of bad PR.

It’s turning over several thousand Russia-linked political posts to Congressional investigators. The president is now unhappy with the platform: Facebook has “always been anti-Trump,” Donald Trump whined on Twitter on Wednesday. (Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a response that Facebook is doing it right, because both sides are angry at it, OK?!)

Amid all that, the social media giant is about to launch its new subscriptions initiative, after Zuckerberg himself confirmed last month that Facebook would start testing it with a “small group of U.S. and European publishers.” The program will allow readers to subscribe to these news organizations directly through Facebook — Facebook won’t be taking a cut — and is reportedly launching sometime this week, according to analyst Ken Doctor.

Who are these participating publishers? Many prominent news outlets have already pulled their work from Facebook’s much-touted Instant Articles. The New York Times, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal owner News Corp are reportedly instead in talks with Facebook’s partner-in-duopoly Google to improve targeting of their subscription services. From Doctor’s reporting in The Street:

Among those not participating in this first phase of the program: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, I’ve learned. All three continue to talk with Facebook, urging more flexibility in Facebook’s approach — while taking their wish list to Facebook’s now archenemy, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, asking that platform to use its artificial intelligence in better targeting and converting subscription prospects. Those three global publishing giants are among the digital subscription leaders, making their absence from the program high-profile.

The other notable test partners will reportedly be The Washington Post, The Economist, and news outlets from two U.S. newspaper chains, Tronc and Hearst. The test of the news subscriptions program will include around two dozen different outlets, “about 90 percent of them newspapers”:

…the Washington Post will be the biggest name in the program at launch. Long an all-in participant in Facebook’s underlying Instant Articles program, the Post continues to zag when some of its nation/global peers zig. Its experimentation has paid off. This week, it passed the million mark in digital-only subscriptions, still half the Times’ digital news subscription total, but the fastest growth rate in the business.

In addition, The Economist and two big U.S. newspaper chains have said, “Count me in,” as the program launches. In total, Facebook will be able to point to a roster of about two dozen titles, about 90% of them newspapers. Most are U.S.-based, but German publishers are among the European representatives, I’ve learned from multiple sources.

…as the Facebook subscriptions product launches, the San Diego Union-Tribune will be joined by both Tronc’s flagship Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun in the test.

Publishers were hesitant to join the initiative, Doctor writes, because the new program won’t be offering much better data than was already available through the standard Instant Articles program, and because Facebook was adamant about sticking to a 10-articles-for-free paywall model:

Facebook wouldn’t budge on one key deal point, and that proved a deal-breaker for some publishers. Those publishers participating in subscriptions must offer readers 10 free monthly articles before the paywall can lower. That sounds reasonable. Yet industry stats show that even in a paywall of five — half of Facebook’s 10 — only 3% to 5% of readers will hit the wall in a given month. If they don’t hit the wall, they’re not going to buy a subscription. Instead, publishers — including the big ones not participating in this launch — want “flexible sampling.” In short, they want to decide how many freebies to offer, and maybe to adjust that number on the fly — as some are now doing on their own sites.

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