Ever since the furor over Russian trolls and fake news triggered a congressional hearing, Facebook has talked about its plans to curb misinformation by using its News Feed algorithm to rank high-quality news sources based on trust, etc. But the company is also taking an even more significant step into the editorial side of the news business, it confirmed on Wednesday, and one that cements its status as a media entity rather than just a distribution platform: It is paying a select group of news organizations like CNN and Fox News to create news shows specifically for its Watch feature. As Variety described it:
The initial shows, fully funded by Facebook, come from seven partners: TV news orgs ABC News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and Univision; local news publisher Advance Local; and digital media companies ATTN: and Mic. They’re slated to roll out on Facebook Watch this summer. The mix includes live breaking news, daily news briefings, and weekly, longer-form series. The shows will be available in an exclusive window on Facebook Watch.
The fact that Facebook was working on rolling out a series of such media partnerships is not new. It was reported by the Wall Street Journal last month, and Campbell Brown also discussed the idea with CJR in a recent interview, since she is the architect of the program. In that same interview, Brown addressed one of the main criticisms of Facebook’s attempts to rank news on the basis of quality, which is that doing so inevitably means the giant social network has to pick winners, and that doing so could tilt the landscape. Those ways may serve Facebook’s needs, but will they serve the needs of society or journalism? That remains to be seen.
In the case of the Watch partnerships, Facebook is even more explicitly choosing winners: It is paying specific news outlets money (the exact amount is unknown) in return for producing specific kinds of video news programming that will presumably be heavily favored by the Facebook ranking algorithm. Anyone who has been creating news-related video for Facebook is instantly at a disadvantage. That’s not to say the partners Facebook has chosen aren’t worthy, only that by choosing them the social network has put its thumb on the scale of what counts as quality news on the platform.
The other risk of this new venture is a more pragmatic one, and that is the risk that Facebook will one day change its mind about what it wants to focus on, and anyone who bought into the Watch vision of longer-form news content will be left twisting in the wind. As Brown acknowledged in her CJR interview and former News Feed head Adam Mosseri also admitted at a recent CJR event (a discussion that can also be heard on the CJR podcast), Facebook has done this in the past with video, when it was promoting Facebook Live.
In a similar way to its current video initiative, the company paid a range of media outlets including BuzzFeed and The New York Times a total of $50 million to produce short-form video for Facebook Live, and then left many of them hanging when its strategy changed. “We need to be more transparent about how we do that kind of thing and get better at setting expectations,” Mosseri said during his interview with The Information’s Jessica Lessin at the CJR event in San Francisco.
Obviously, paying media outlets is on one level a good thing, since many of them are facing declines in advertising revenue (thanks in part to Facebook) and are looking for alternative ways to fund their journalism. But at the same time, as several critics mentioned in a recent CJR story, that money arguably distorts the production of journalism in a variety of ways, since to some extent it forces media organizations to cater to Facebook’s definition of what the news should look like. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, as the old saying goes. And the long-term impact of that is anyone’s guess.