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July 20, 2017, 2 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   July 20, 2017

It’s been a bustling week for Facebook and the news business — not to mention the past six months.

Since launching the Facebook Journalism Project — a step toward broader collaboration with the industry or a charm offensive to make nice with publishers, depending who you talk to — in January, the not-a-media-company social media company has been working diligently. In an update from Facebook’s head of news partnerships Campbell Brown and VP of product Fidji Simo published today, Facebook announced it has consulted with more than 2,600 publishers globally, trained local journalists across the world in 15 in-depth Facebook boot camps called News Days, participated in 71 media events, and opened its recently-acquired social monitoring platform CrowdTangle to publishers and journalism schools for free.

But that’s not even the biggest Facebook/news news of the week.

Confirmation that Facebook will test a new tool to allow users to subscribe to the news publications directly from the Facebook app’s Instant Articles had many Facebook skeptics scratching their chins. While many say it’s a long time coming, not everyone is convinced it’s a positive thing.

Media/technology writer Mathew Ingram explained his reservations:

This plan is likely to cause at least some cheering in media land, because a number of publishers have been clamoring for paywall support from Facebook, and criticizing the lackluster performance of the existing Instant Articles format when it comes to generating revenue.

As with most things involving Facebook, however, this deal sounds like a classic Faustian bargain.

According to Brown, subscriptions will work this way: If a publisher chooses to implement support for a paywall, readers will get 10 articles for free — in much the same way they do with the New York Times’ “metered” access plan. After that, they will be prompted to sign up for a subscription. If they already have one, Facebook says it will make it easy for them to log in.

And what about the revenue — will there be some kind of sharing plan, where Facebook takes a percentage, the way Apple does with its 30%? The company isn’t saying, but it seems likely that there will be, although perhaps not to begin with.

Brown did say that the social network would give publishers control over all of the reader and subscription data involved in the process, which is also likely to come as good news to many. At least they don’t have to hand all of that over to Facebook as well as all of their content. But that doesn’t mean this deal is something media companies should leap at.

Business leader and HuffPost contributor Anurag Harsh weighed in as well:

Now, before you salute Mark Zuckerberg for attempting to tackle the fake news problem that many believe he unwittingly created, perhaps there is another agenda? An increase in digital subscriptions across rival platforms such as Google and Apple News suggests it could be more about clawing back business.

The news subscription service is expected to be built on top of Facebook’s Instant Articles feature. The infamous algorithm will feed personalized news stories from premium publishers based on a user’s preferences and interests.

Once users are hooked on to these news stories, it would be interesting to see if they would go ahead and pay for continuing to receive these stories, further reinforcing rather than challenging their existing world views as they sit inside their personalized echo chambers?

The inconvenient truth is that in an age dominated by authentic live reporting from users on the ground on sites such as Twitter, many people might find the notion of paying for news a rather outdated concept. Should a site throw up a paywall for news access, one wonders how difficult it might be for users to find the same news on another website that does not require payment.

Facebook said it will start testing the subscription option in October.

Earlier this week, Facebook also calmed publishers a bit by announcing a link ownership feature as part of its anti-fake news effort and released a new analytics tool for Instant Articles. Previously, any page could edit the previewed headline and subhead of any link it posted; some unsavory pages would adjust the text in the link preview to be fake news, though the domain would stay the same, purporting to show that a news organization was fake news. Facebook announced it was removing that ability entirely, but pushback from publishers (and social media editors) led to a shift. Link ownership requires a page to verify that it is connected to the domain of the link before it can tweak the wording, for A/B testing, updates to previews as stories evolved, and more. Media publishers will be the first to try the link ownership feature.

The Instant Articles analytics tool will enable users to compare the engagement of their own mobile articles to the engagement of Facebook’s Instant Articles.

“I’ve always believed that the user experience of Instant Articles was positively correlated with more consumption. With the launch of this metric, I can finally back up that belief with real data,” Kim Lau, The Atlantic’s senior vice president of digital and head of business development, told Poynter. “For the past 30 days, we’re seeing a 33.5 percent increase in article views compared to our mobile web versions.”

Half a year in, Facebook’s journalism effort is still finding its place; today’s update describes its work on local news as “still nascent,” for instance. But Brown and Simo said they’re committed to working with publishers for the long haul:

One of the biggest changes we’ve made through the Facebook Journalism Project is how we work together with our news partners. Deep collaboration with publishers is a critical tenant of our product development process, and we’ve learned that we need a tailored approach…

We’re just getting started. We’ve learned so much since we launched the Facebook Journalism Project and this collaboration is already driving innovation that we couldn’t have achieved on our own. It’s going to take a concerted effort on all of our parts to help build a future where quality journalism can thrive.

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