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April 2, 2019, 8:32 a.m.
Audience & Social

Facebook is working on a dedicated News tab that might pay publishers licensing fees (or quarantine news where most users won’t find it)

“The relationship between us and the publishers is different in a surface where we’re showing the content on the basis of its being high-quality, trustworthy content.”

Most of Facebook’s users go there to connect with friends, not to get news, says Mark Zuckerberg. But for the “10, 15, maybe 20% of people in our community” who do want to go deep on news, what can Facebook offer them?

In a recent discussion with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, Zuckerberg talked about a new tab (he repeatedly called it a “surface,” so don’t get confused when you see that again below, it’s a tab) that the company is working on: A News tab that would “surface high-quality and trustworthy information.” You can watch the “discussion,” which Facebook released on Monday, here. (It followed a Zuckerberg op-ed on Internet regulation that ran on Saturday in The Washington Post.) The News tab sounds somewhat akin to the “Watch” tab for on-demand video that Facebook launched in the U.S. in 2017 and globally last year.

“Rather than do the typical thing that I think Facebook would have done a year ago — have some engineers and product managers internally say, ‘OK, we think there’s something to do with news, let’s go build what is best,'” Facebook is trying to build the News tab in a “more consultative” way, Zuckerberg said, and said that’s why he’s bringing it up with Döpfner. It’s also probably not a coincidence that this discussion is being publicly released a week after Apple launched its own revamped news product.

Döpfner — who has been an outspoken European proponent of big platforms paying for their use of publishers’ content — responded that the most important thing about such a tab would be for it to have a “fair model,” with publishers receiving direct access to consumers and/or receiving a fair revenue share. A licensing fee seems “simple and obvious,” he said, adding that Facebook “would be perceived as a really helpful player” if it were to start paying publishers fees for news articles read via the tab.

“That’s definitely something we should be thinking about here, because the relationship between us and the publishers is different in a surface where we’re showing the content on the basis of its being high-quality, trustworthy content, rather than, ‘OK, you followed some publication and now you’re going to get the stream of the things that they publish,'” Zuckerberg said. A licensing fee “makes a lot of sense.”

How personalized will the content in the tab be? Zuckerberg began with the premise that “of course anything that we do is going to be personalized,” but he had a follow-up: “Should we make it so that if you follow The New York Times, you can get their content, but if you don’t follow The Washington Post, you’re not going to see that content? Or should we have some kind of understanding — here are the sources that are broadly trusted across society, or in your network specifically — and try to build algorithms or human curation? Should we be trying to explore this in a way where we can surface more high-quality content, or do you think we should have it stay limited to what you, as a person using the service, have asked for and connected to yourself?” (The Watch tab for video that Facebook rolled out globally last year, he pointed out, includes “unconnected” content, turning up videos from brands that users don’t follow already.) Of course, it’s unlikely that a person who follows The New York Times would be unhappy to see an article pop up from The Washington Post. Those publications have overlapping audience. A more interesting scenario to think about is how much Facebook’s algorithms or human curators would manage the whole “both sides” thing: Will articles from Fox News be nestled alongside those New York Times stories?

“I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be as broad as possible,” Dopfner said, clarifying that this “broadness” would still need to take place within the context of having screened out untrustworthy news outlets — which, again, is much easier said than done and is also something that Facebook historically has been…not great at.

Zuckerberg is talking about news in a different way than the company has talked about it in the past. Traffic, for instance, isn’t mentioned. (Campbell Brown, Facebook’s global head of news partnerships, last year: “We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more. That is the old world and there is no going back.”) In the instance of this News tab, it seems as if the articles would be read entirely within Facebook, Instant Articles–style, and publishers would get a licensing fee for providing them. It isn’t clear whether publishers would get more money for more popular articles.

If Facebook is saying wants to include “high-quality and trustworthy” information, it’s going to need to do some editorializing and picking and choosing, something that in the past it has been loath to do (R.I.P. Trending Topics). The hiring of human editors as full-time Facebook employees would be a first for the company. And when Zuckerberg differentiates between sources that are “broadly trusted across society, or in your network specifically,” well, what does that end up looking like in the tab of a user who believes The New York Times and Washington Post are fake news? We’ll see.

Aside from whatever editorial and financial arrangements get made, there’s a really big question around attention. Will adding a dedicated news tab also involve reducing news’ prominence in the main News Feed — or removing it altogether?

People who get news on Facebook are disproportionately of the “news will find me” variety — meaning they don’t specifically seek news out but instead bump into it in non-news-specific contexts and consider themselves sufficiently informed without adopting any particular news habit. In other words, they’re specifically the sort of news consumer who won’t tap on a tab labeled “News.”

More broadly, other than Messenger — long ago jettisoned to another app — Facebook hasn’t had a ton of success attracting user attention to any part of its app that isn’t the News Feed. (Just ask any publisher on Facebook Watch, where traffic has been disappointing, attention is still heavily dependent on News Feed, and even Facebook execs say feature “shows for nobody.”)

Let’s not forget the last time Facebook experimented with a similar idea, in 2017, when it picked six countries’ information ecosystems to experiment on and moved news stories out of the main News Feed and into a new dedicated tab called Explore. The result wasn’t good! Traffic to quality publishers in those countries — where Facebook is an even more important driver of traffic to news sites than in the U.S. — dropped by as much as half to two-thirds.

Facebook killed off the Explore tab experiment in March 2018; at the time, this is what Facebook’s Adam Mosseri wrote, and it doesn’t give much hope for a future dedicated news tab (emphasis ours):

The Explore Feed was a trial response to consistent feedback we received from people over the past year who said they want to see more from friends and family in News Feed. The idea was to create a version of Facebook with two different News Feeds: one as a dedicated place with posts from friends and family and another as a dedicated place for posts from Pages.

To understand if people might like two separate feeds, we started a test in October 2017 in six countries.

You gave us our answer: People don’t want two separate feeds. In surveys, people told us they were less satisfied with the posts they were seeing, and having two separate feeds didn’t actually help them connect more with friends and family…We also received feedback that we made it harder for people in the test countries to access important information, and that we didn’t communicate the test clearly.

Mosseri now runs Instagram, in case anyone from Facebook wants to ask him about it.

According to what one source told Recode, the product is supposed to launch by the end of this year.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 2, 2019, 8:32 a.m.
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