When the Facebook Journalism Project was introduced earlier this year, it confirmed that the technology company was now also a media company. In a video chat last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company…we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used. We don’t write the news that people read on the platform. But at the same time we also know that we do a lot more than just distribute news, and we’re an important part of the public discourse.”
It sounded like Zuckerberg was taking his company’s role in the media landscape more seriously. According to a Facebook announcement, the Journalism Project’s goal is to “establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry” in three ways: collaborative development of news products, training and tools for journalists, and training and tools for the general public.
As more audiences turn to platforms like Facebook to find their news, it makes sense that the company would want to partner with the media. Still, there are many critics that say that relationship has become strained. A recent Bloomberg article, “Media Companies are Getting Sick of Facebook,” argued that it’s getting tougher for media outlets to view these arrangements as mutually beneficial.
“Facebook is about Facebook,” Andrew Morse, general manager of CNN’s digital operations, said in the article. “For them, these are experiments, but for the media companies looking to partner with significant commitments, it gets to be a bit of whiplash.”
It’s not just Facebook giving publishers whiplash. Google recently confirmed they were going through with the addition of a new adblocking feature to its Chrome web browser. The company said it was for a better user experience, but by potentially blocking pop-up ads, ads that play sound, and flashing ads, it could hurt publishers who rely on that revenue.
Although Google stated it would block ads that do meet the standards of the Coalition for Better Ads, the News Media Alliance, the trade association that represents nearly 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, said in a statement, “We are very concerned to learn that Google appears to be taking unilateral action to implement the Coalition’s standards by adding an ad blocking feature within Chrome that would block all advertising to websites that do not comply with these new standards. Because Chrome has 60 percent market share in the web browser market, Google, in effect, would be regulating the distribution of internet advertising and gaining even more control over how publishers monetize their content.”
Even with these concerns, newspapers are still searching for more opportunities in digital, and by working with tech companies like Facebook and Google, these partnerships are crucial. Simply put, we need them as much as they need us.
A Future in Collaboration
When Facebook launched Instant Articles in 2015, it promised publishers faster loading times and a better user experience for mobile audiences. Publishers like the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Guardian were one of the earlier adopters, and in April 2016, the program opened to all publishers around the world. But was it too little, too late? The shine around Instant Articles started to fade this year for a couple publishers when they decided to leave the program. Among them were the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian. According to reports, one of the main reasons for the departure was that Instant Articles wasn’t creating enough traffic or revenue.
But not all publishers are putting on the brakes.
One of the first publishers to sign on to Instant Articles, German publisher Bild, credits the program for driving subscriptions. Digiday recently reported that Bild now publishes all of its articles on the platform and reduced the number of steps to sign up for a subscription.
“Bild put its own developers on the case with Facebook. By February, it had reduced the process to three steps,” wrote Digiday’s Lucinda Southern. “Now, connecting with Facebook’s API, the reader’s email address is directly pushed to Bild’s database, pre-activating the reader’s account, and sending out an email from the publisher.”
Stefan Betzold, managing director for Bild, told Digiday, “It’s a first good step in getting (trial users) into our system, but when the two-week period is over, we need to use our CRM system to target them again,” he said. “Is it strong enough to attract to attract subscribers? We want to go further; we need deeper integration…Facebook needs to make this a standardized project so it can be used for any publisher.”
Another publisher finding success on Instant Articles is the New York Daily News. Although the publication wasn’t one of Facebook’s initial partners when the project rolled out in 2015, the newspaper started to test out Instant Articles in 2016. But executive vice president of digital Grant Whitmore admitted they approached the partnership cautiously before jumping in with both feet.
“We knew Facebook was a significant traffic driver to the Daily News, but we wanted to see what kind of impact it would have on that traffic first,” he said. “We were already comfortable with our automatic revenue channels, but once we joined Instant Articles, we started to see it make money.”
Whitmore said as of April, “basically everything (they) produce is on Instant Articles.”
“It was an economic decision,” he said. “We saw enough revenue there that it made sense to be there.”
When asked about the other publishers who left Instant Articles, Whitmore said it was hard to know the motivation behind them for leaving, but perhaps they were choosing to focus on other initiatives instead.
“I know the New York Times is making a significant effort with their subscriptions,” he said. “Then again, they were there during the early days of it (Instant Articles), and we’re still in the beginning stages. Who knows? Next year they might be there again and we’ll be off. That’s just how the industry is.”
But Whitmore is encouraged to see Facebook’s attempts at “playing nice” with publishers, including making the Instant Articles revenue share more attractive and generous to publishers and “cleaning up” the fake news and misinformation on the site.
When asked about collaboration, Whitmore pointed out that the Daily News has its own Innovation Lab aimed at engaging with the New York startup community. It also hosts a “Conversations” series focused on the open discussions on the changing new media landscape. The most recent one centered on “Journalism in the Age of Collaboration and Technology,” and featured panelists from the Daily News, BuzzFeed and ProPublica. In addition, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize this year with ProPublica in the Public Service category.
Winning the Pulitzer with ProPublica was a great example of two companies with specific skills working together, Whitmore said, and he sees more collaboration in the future, not only at the Daily News but within the news and tech industries as they intersect.
Instant Articles isn’t the only avenue into newsrooms for Facebook. In April, Facebook announced it was partnering with the Knight Foundation to bring training and support to local newsrooms. According to Facebook, “These collaborations will be conducted through online and in-person meetings and are meant to increase and encourage peer-to-peer learning and provide the foundations for a course curriculum on Facebook audience engagement and local news, which will benefit newsrooms at scale across the U.S. and beyond. At the conclusion, we hope to jointly publish case studies and a final report with recommendations for future investment.”
Facebook is also a founding funder to the News Integrity Initiative, a global consortium focused on helping people make informed judgments about the news they read and share online. According to a press release, “The Initiative’s mission is to advance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world, and to better inform the public conversation. The Initiative will fund applied research and projects, and convene meetings with industry experts.”
Facebook isn’t alone; Google has also made it a point to focus on collaboration.
The Google News Lab was a founding partner with First Draft News, a nonprofit coalition created in June 2015 to raise awareness and address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age. When it first launched, First Draft News had nine founding partners, but it was the Google News Lab that “got the ball rolling,” said Aimee Rinehart, partner network manager. Since September 2016, there has been a big push to expand the network to include more newsroom and academic partners, and many have joined, including Facebook, Twitter, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Rinehart, who was hired before the U.S. presidential election last year, now manages more than 100 partner organizations in First Draft’s Partner Network.
Rinehart said the overwhelming response to join the network is an encouraging sign. “The goal is to share ideas with partners,” she said. “Ideas about protecting sources, security, verification…we’re looking for solutions….very few people in the newsroom are working on this topic, and it’s an essential role in the newsroom.” And that’s where the newsrooms in the Partner Network come in. Thanks to the financial support from Facebook and Google, newsrooms around the world are able to work together to verify information and report trustworthy news.
“I do see more collaboration in the future of journalism especially in the global news cycle,” Rinehart said. “We now have more tools to connect with each other—text, video, apps, Google drive—we’re a more connected world.”
A Newsroom’s Toolbox
Facebook and Google—once known as disruptors to the news industry— are now taking deliberate actions to become an ally.
In addition to the Journalism Project, Facebook has hosted several News Days in cities like Atlanta, San Diego, and Chicago and internationally in places like India and Latin America. At the events, journalists can learn more about Instagram and Facebook Live and meet one-on-one with Facebook staff and engineers.
After purchasing CrowdTangle last year, a tool that helps publishers keep track of what’s happening on social media, Facebook has helped more than 800 local newsrooms onboard and built 930 dashboards for new and existing partners. A Facebook spokesperson said their goal is have CrowdTangle be in roughly 1,800 U.S. newsrooms by the end of the year. Facebook also recently hired a product manager to focus specifically on local news, as well as a partner manager on the news partnerships team dedicated to working with local news organizations.
And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook was building a feature that would allow users to subscribe to publishers directly from the mobile app, similar to Apple News. It is expected to launch at the end of the year, but publishers remain skeptical including the News Media Alliance.
Alliance vice president of innovation Michael MaLoon said in a statement: “Overall, this sounds like an encouraging move by Facebook, but by now we’ve learned to take their overtures about helping the news industry with a grain of salt. According to initial reports, this new feature will only be available on content posted through Instant Articles. Other discussions have mentioned a metered, micro-payment model. We’re interested to see what develops and how altruistic the feature is.”
Meanwhile, Google launched its News Lab in 2015 in order to collaborate with journalists to build the future of media. The lab focuses on four areas: trust and verification, data journalism, immersive storytelling and inclusive storytelling. With tools like Google Search, Google Maps and YouTube, journalists have the best instruments at their fingertips. Google also offers news lab courses online on topics like investigative reporting, safety and security and getting started with Accelerated Mobile Pages.
Working extensively with Google is the Local Media Consortium, a national partnership representing more than 70 media companies, spanning more than 1,500 local newspapers, television stations, radio stations and magazines.
LMC executive director Rusty Coats said the group signed its first partner contracts with Google in 2014, beginning with Doubleclick for Publishers, AdSense, Search and AdX. Since then, they have expanded their partnership with Google to include Analytics, Newsstand, Consumer Surveys and YouTube.
“Our economic terms with Google-related platforms are superior to what our members would enjoy if they negotiated individual contracts with Google but, more importantly, by working together with Google, they maximize revenue streams in display advertising and audience engagement,” Coats said. “Simply, Google drove tens of millions of dollars in digital revenue for our members last year.”
He added that by working with Google, LMC members have direct access to innovations that will help them succeed in digital publishing. “This is a level of the game that a few large media companies may be able to access; by interfacing with Google as the LMC, these innovations cascade through all sizes of media companies and markets…. We have to work with tech companies that are building the platforms and tools that will help local media companies stay relevant. We also can learn that no one can beat the quality of our local content and our ability to create solutions for local advertisers, and that major tech companies need that quality content and Main Street advertising relationships to stay relevant, too.”