Facebook woos media giants: Will social media control the future of news?

Over recent months, Facebook has been in negotiations with at least half a dozen media companies, etching out the details of a proposed plan to host news content inside the social media site.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File
People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Oct. 29, 2014.

Media companies may take a huge leap of faith into a new phase of the Digital Age, or at least if everything goes according to Facebook’s plan they will, The New York Times reported this week. Over recent months, the social media giant has been holding closed-door discussions with at least half a dozen media mammoths such as The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic, etching out the details of a proposed plan to host news content inside Facebook, instead of making users go to an external site.

The plan has been touted as a sure-fire way to streamline user experience by allowing links to load more quickly and letting users avoid the pesky ads that make news consumption cumbersome. 

But some media observers are skeptical, saying it could destroy incentives for journalistic integrity and prevent small publishers from reaching their audience.

“The company’s [Facebook’s] news feed algorithm is an increasingly important news filter, particularly for younger 'millennials.' That means any deeper partnerships with media groups to host their stories could be controversial, with publishers that do not sign up likely to complain vociferously if Facebook’s algorithm penalises their stories as a result,” wrote Stuart Dredge for the Guardian.

The ability of small publishers to reach their audience has already diminished even without the preferential treatment that Facebook’s potential media collaborators could receive. In 2012, Facebook announced that organic page reach was just 16 percent. In other words, a single article posted by a news organization probably appeared in only 16 percent of the organization's followers' news feeds. By February 2014, that number had declined to 6.15 percent, and by January 2015, organic reach was practically nonexistent, the tech website Dazeinfo.com reported.

“In such [a] scenario, if Facebook ties up with a bunch of leading publishers and hosts their news content, those publishers who are already facing warmth due to the fall of organic reach, will become more distressed,” wrote Dazeinfo research analyst Pritha Bose.

Even for media giants, the proposed change has been characterized as a leap of faith. Most media companies are accustomed to driving traffic back to their own sites and collecting their own data on users, not to mention ad revenue. While BuzzFeed has pioneered a policy of spreading content outside its site, The New York Times uses a subscription model that accounts for a growing percentage of its revenue. Ad revenue sharing plans for the new deal with Facebook would still need to be hashed out and solidified, anonymous sources confirmed to The New York Times.

Nevertheless, some analysts say that Facebook’s ability to reach a vast audience may make it worth the risk. Facebook currently has more than 1.3 billion active monthly users, about a fifth of the world’s population, and already has become the leading source of traffic for many digital publishers.

“It [a media company] would have to weigh the benefits of reaching Facebook’s users – and the ad revenue that comes with them – against the prospect of giving away its content and losing the clicks on its own site that would instead stay within Facebook,” The New York Times reported.

But while Facebook has little experience participating in revenue sharing with content providers, it has been experimenting with revenue sharing options. Some of these experiments, one of which prioritizes video hosted on Facebook over other content, could be an example of what the future will hold.

“If Facebook pushes beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the site commonplace, those who do not participate in the program could lose substantial traffic – a factor that has played into the thinking of some publishers. Their articles might load more slowly than their competitors,’ and over time readers might avoid those sites,” wrote Ravi Somaiya, Mike Isaac, and Vindu Goel for The New York Times.

“And just as Facebook has changed its news feed to automatically play videos hosted directly on the site, giving them an advantage compared with videos hosted on YouTube, it could change the feed to give priority to articles hosted directly on its site.”

Now, many are asking themselves just how much control Facebook will have over the type of content that reaches the world.  

Felix Salmon at the pop culture and news website Fusion warns that as news sites sacrifice their brands to reach a wider audience, their incentives for accuracy and editorial judgment will disappear.

“It’s not just about losing website traffic from Facebook, although that’s a huge worry for sites which sell millions of dollars’ worth of ads against those pageviews. It’s also about losing control over exactly how your content is presented and delivered – about losing most of the things which make your news brand memorable and unique,” Mr. Salmon wrote.

Atlantic Media Co. owner David Bradley says he believes the deal could be a game-changer for the entire industry. 

“In my last trip to the Valley, the best minds were talking about the same issue: Is the coming contest between platforms and publishing companies an existential threat to journalism? At least in the Valley, largely the answer I heard was ‘Yes,’ ” Mr. Bradley said in October to David Carr, then New York Times media reporter, when Facebook had begun shopping news organizations.

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