Industry & Advocacy News
March 26, 2015
Facebook and its 1.4 billion users have become an increasingly important source of website traffic for news outlets. Click a link in the Facebook News Feed, and you’re brought to the original publisher’s site, boosting its views and advertising revenue. But not for long, it appears.
The New York Times reported yesterday that Facebook has been in talks with a handful of major media companies—including National Geographic, BuzzFeed, and the Times itself—about hosting news articles inside Facebook, allowing users to view stories without visiting the news sites themselves. A few revenue-sharing ideas are under consideration to let news outlets profit from this arrangement, the Times reports, but details have not been finalized.
Facebook users will certainly see a streamlined experience, especially the growing number who access the site on mobile devices. And news outlets could find that they’re reaching untapped audiences.
So what could possibly go wrong? Even if news outlets can make it pay in the short term, they’re still giving up control of their content, their independent ad revenue, and the potential reader data and goodwill they could gather from traffic to their own sites. As the Times’s David Carr predicted in October 2014, “[the] wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike.… Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”
The fact that Facebook has the power to draw traditional news publishers to the negotiating table might even signal a paradigm shift in news distribution. “Facebook has trained users to treat Facebook as a place to get news,” writes David Lumb of Fast Company, “and, because of its massive user base, it has trained publishers to treat Facebook as a kind of newsstand.”
The danger in this scenario is that news outlets might begin to consider Facebook an essential way to reach readers. If that’s allowed to happen, it could gain the upper hand in negotiations with publishers—as we’ve seen happen with Amazon in the book market—and sooner or later it could have the power to start squeezing the publishers for extra profits. And we know what has happened to authors when publishers get squeezed: the losses have flowed downhill.
There’s always hope that Facebook has learned something from the roughshod way Amazon has treated publishers and authors, and that it doesn’t want to destroy the industry it’s trying to work with. Facebook execs have been saying the right things, at least. Its chief product officer, Chris Cox, told the Times’s Carr last October that “we feel a responsibility to work with publishers to come up with as good an experience as we can for consumers. And we want and need that to be a good experience for publishers as well.”
That remains to be seen, but the potential arrangement raises questions for both news outlets and authors. Foremost among these is whether Facebook and its news partners will remember that, even—and indeed especially—in the digital publishing ecosystem, quality reporting, authorship, and editing are what generate the value that publishers and distributors then translate into revenue.