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Facebook Watch’s News Programs Need to Look Less Like TV and More Like Facebook (Column)

This week saw the kickoff of a new initiative for Facebook: The social network embroiled in the controversy over fake news is trying to embrace real news. The platform is serving up original programming from various sources on its Watch platform: CNN, ABC News, Univision, and Fox News are among the early participants, with Bloomberg and BuzzFeed News to follow over the next few months. It’s an interesting step forward for an internet giant that’s become, in some circles, synonymous with the concept of “fake news”: trying to become, in addition to its many other roles, a purveyor of real news content.

But, given that Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with Recode published Wednesday, stated that his site should keep up content denying the Holocaust because “it’s hard to impugn intent,” it’s hard to believe that the site will represent something more than a place where news struggles to survive. After all, news lost out to its made-up counterpart in 2016 in part because it’s bound by strictures beyond imagination; it’s necessarily stodgier, and more boring. Can it ever thrive on a social network in which the coin of the realm is flashy shareability?

It’s fair to wonder if Facebook is really trying. The site’s Watch platform doesn’t foreground its news content (despite the A-list collaborators involved), and announced first-wave programming from ABC News and Univision so far exists on the site only as trailers. What does exist on the site — exclusive programming from CNN and Fox News — is strikingly unsuited to the web, overproduced and reliant on format in a place where the limitations of TV production seem overly fussy and strange. Take, for instance, Anderson Cooper’s “Full Circle,” a web-only companion piece to his nightly “360” news show. The show, in less than 30 minutes, runs through segments titled “1st Thing 1st,” “The 1 Thing,” “The 5 Things,” “The Full Circle Interview,” “The 180” (a viewer Q&A session with Cooper himself), and, finally, “The Goods” (a piece of uplifting news). Most of these segments are saddled with heavy, distracting guitar music underlaying them; all are announced onscreen with bright and much-labored-over widgets. The notion, I suppose, is that breaking the show up makes it “snackable,” full of bite-sized bits of information, but the show still exists as a single half-hour video. That video becomes laborious to endure when so much time is spent setting up aspects of the broadcast. In trying to create a fun and vibrant broadcast, CNN has ended up seeming out of place and, worse, outdated.

How did broadcasting on the Internet end up here? The unprecedented intimacy the web offers would seem to open the door for an anchor like Cooper — who’s historically been no stranger to opening up about his personal life and his perspective on the news — getting somewhat real. It would also seem to demand it, given the Facebook generation’s preference for information presented with a tinge of advocacy or outright emotion rather than staid remove. Instead, opportunities for spontaneity, for a real perspective on the news or a conversation between host and viewer that flows somewhat naturally, are choked off by the endless obstacles the show itself presents. There are simply too many segments for a short show. Soliciting questions from viewers makes sense if questions are about the news of the day or about something more personal to Cooper than a résumé line. (On day one, a viewer asked via Facebook comment, “What story did you do that had a long lasting effect on you personally?” The next day, a different viewer asked: “Of all the war zones you have been to, which was the most life-changing for you?”)

Fox News’ “Fox News Update” is similarly ill-suited to Facebook, looking as it does precisely like the shiny, busy visual universe of Fox News. That’s a palette that looks crowded in a small Facebook streaming window, and an anchorly tone that seems unduly fussy and TV-trained. By contrast to Fox News’ team, including the sharp but congenitally buttoned-up Shepard Smith (who anchored an installment of “Update” on its first day), Cooper is at least somewhat willing to let loose a small crack here and there, but he’s too locked into format to escape as much as one senses he might hope to. He’s been given the opportunity to engage with an audience in a manner that’s vastly more interactive and intimate than his nightly report, and yet he’s locked into spending that opportunity on a broadcast that races through news nuggets with no single moment of focus.

The idea behind Facebook’s work with news outlets is an admirable one. But despite the company’s boundless resources, the idea of presenting original news-related programming seems to have gone woefully underdeveloped. To this day, the most meaningful and provocative uses of Facebook as a means of distributing breaking news have come through broadcasts that used the community’s willingness to read and watch broadly to great effect. Diamond Reynolds’s brave and terrifying live broadcast of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s 2016 death after having been shot by police in Minnesota, for instance, was a Facebook video that both made news and was news; it catalyzed a response and changed viewers’ understanding of the police brutality crisis.

Obviously, Cooper is not going to be reporting via Facebook Live anytime soon, and he doesn’t need to cry or to take a political position in order to be effective. But the differences between the open emotionality and frankness of what works on Facebook and Cooper’s bemused remove and long, studious list of topics is instructive. A site whose video content exists in that video’s long shadow can do better — can stir us more deeply, can alter our understanding of American life more fully — than Cooper running through a long list of news tidbits before walking down memory lane. He can and should use the platform to show us what he really cares about, and then allow his younger colleagues in the field to chase down stories that will play on a phone-sized screen. Both CNN, tightly protective of its reputation in precarious times for journalists, and Facebook, clearly seeking credibility as a news provider, are risk-averse partners. But in order to meet audiences where they are and get them excited to talk about and share the news, they’ll need to take risks and change the way a Facebook news program looks for an audience whose expectations of what qualifies as news has been reshaped by all that they read on Facebook.

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