Facebook will pay certain UK publishers to feature stories in a new Facebook News tab beginning in January 2021, but critics fear even more power in the hands of a few.

While headlines blared that millions of pounds from Facebook’s deep coffers would start flowing to cash-strapped publishers, and the Guardian reported that some publishers are privately expecting to make millions from the deal, not everyone believes that Facebook’s editors and model will be the hoped-for boon to news.

  • UK publishers including Condé Nast, The Economist, and Reach are signed up to the scheme.
  • Details are scant on money, but a key element of the offer is fresh new audiences.
  • There is skepticism about a major platform formally controlling the flow of information, and about making publishers even more dependent.

Key quote: “As always, no details, no numbers.” - Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute.

The details:

Image: Facebook News

Facebook’s stated focus is on discovery, which, alongside the money, is its main offer to publishers. The company claims that in the US, where the app and tab have been available nationally since June, it has “found more than 95% of the traffic Facebook News delivers to publishers is new audiences that have not interacted with those news outlets in the past.”

The product uses a combination of human-curated top stories alongside algorithmically-selected stories pertaining to a user’s interests.

In a statement on the social network’s company blog, Jesper Doub, director of news partnerships, wrote that publishers including “Archant, Condé Nast, The Economist, ESI Media, Guardian Media Group, Hearst, Iliffe, JPI Media, Midland News Association, Reach, STV and others” had signed on.

There are, however, some notable exceptions:

  • Rupert Murdoch’s News UK is yet to sign up, despite fellow News Corp asset Dow Jones signing on to Apple’s news product.
  • Mail Online publisher DMGT is also understood to be holding out.

And specifics are lacking. The director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, pointed out on Twitter: “as always, no details, no numbers.”

Meanwhile, others are deeply skeptical of Facebook’s own employees selecting stories, given the potential for abuse. This exists on multiple levels: it formalises an important role in distribution for Facebook, which as a publicly traded firm has an interest in what is written about it; second, it makes publishers even more dependent on the platform, this time in the form of direct payments.

As ever, Facebook wants to do things on its own terms. In September, the company (and fellow digital titan Google) came out in open opposition to draft legislation put before the Australian parliament that would have allowed news organisations to collectively bargain with the platforms, rather than the title-by-title negotiations that happen now over payments for news.

Bringing publishers onside early in the UK could help to preclude such a move from the British Government. (For a great exploration of various governments’ attempts to get Facebook and Google to pay for news, read Digidays September assessment).

The risk of government heavy handedness is typified by Spain, which in 2014 passed a law to make Google pay for news featured in the Google News aggregator. In response, Google simply stopped operating News in the country and hasn’t done so since, smashing small publishers. Both companies have made similar noises about the Australian legislation.

Sourced from the Guardian, Facebook, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Digiday