Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — aiming to counter skeptics who believe the social network is a chief culprit in promulgating a flood of misinformation — said his company’s new initiative to support journalism and pay publishers is an imperative to support a democratic society.
The Facebook CEO appeared at a media event Friday in New York in a discussion with News Corp CEO Robert Thomson, an erstwhile critic of the social giant who is now an ally and business partner, held at the Paley Center for Media.
“I care about giving people a voice,” Zuckerberg said. But “at the end of the day in order for that to be valuable, there needs to be a strong and free press… and have that at scale.” He continued, “It’s no secret the internet has really disrupted the new business model. I just think every internet platform has a responsibility to fund and form partnerships for news.”
Zuckerberg and Thomson were there to promote the launch of Facebook News, a new section being offered initially in the U.S. to a limited test group of around 200,000 users. The News tab culls content from about 200 hand-picked partners — including News Corp’s Wall Street Journal, as well as the New York Times, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News Channel, Bloomberg, Gannett, NPR, the New Yorker and BuzzFeed.
For the first time, Facebook has formed multiyear financial deals with several Facebook News partners, according to Zuckerberg. In addition to Facebook paying for the content from some (but not all) partners, news orgs included in the section will be able to control their own ad inventory — and retain 100% of that revenue — or use Facebook’s ad network (in which case the “vast majority” of the revenue will go to the news partner). Zuckerberg also said the company is not taking a cut of subscriptions that news publishers sell through Facebook.
In general, Zuckerberg said, the Facebook News deals are structured to pay partners based on the amount of the content they provide and the number of viewers or readers. Thomson, for his part, said News Corp expects to get useful data about reader interactions with its content on Facebook News.
Zuckerberg didn’t fully explain why Facebook is paying licensing fees to only certain news partners, but said one issue was to make available more content from publishers (like News Corp) with paywall business models.
Breitbart News, a news site that former executive chairman Steve Bannon once touted as “the platform for the alt-right” (a characterization that the current leadership has since distanced itself from) is included in the Facebook News tab. Critics have accused Breitbart News of producing content with racist, sexist, transphobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic slants. (Breitbart is among the content partners not being paid by Facebook.)
Asked why Breitbart is in the mix given its track record, Zuckerberg said part of the company’s philosophy in making the section “a trusted source” is that Facebook News “needs to have a diversity of, basically, views in there…. You want to have content that kind of represents different perspectives but is doing so in a way that complies with standards we have set for this.” In selecting partners, Facebook says it evaluates “a broad range of integrity signals in determining product eligibility, including misinformation — as identified based on third-party fact checkers — community standards violations (e.g., hate speech), clickbait, engagement bait and scraped content.”
Zuckerberg said Facebook and News Corp have been talking for at least three years about launching a dedicated news section funded by the social network.
“I do have one question: What took you so long?” Thomson quipped at the outset of the conversation. Zuckerberg responded, “After the last few years, I now have an appreciation that that is the nicest thing he could have said, because that means that he thinks we actually did something good.”
Thomson noted that News Corp has long advocated for internet platforms to compensate news providers, and cited occasional “content contretemps” over the years between his company and Facebook. The Facebook decision to finance journalism “is a powerful precedent that will echo around editorial departments,” he said, adding, “Mark deserves genuine credit for this digital Damascene moment.”
Other publishers also lauded the rollout of Facebook News as a watershed moment. “For the first time, we’re seeing the platforms step up and take responsibility for their role in the news ecosystem,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wrote in a staff memo Friday.
Eventually, while Facebook News is starting with a small test group, Zuckerberg said he hopes the product will reach as many as 30 million users in the U.S. in the next several years. He also cited Facebook’s pledge to spend $300 million over the next three years to support local news providers.
Facebook is the social-media site U.S. consumers use most commonly for news, with 52% of American adults getting news on the site, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted July 8-21, 2019.
But most people remain wary of the information they see on Facebook and other internet services. A majority of Americans — 62% of adults — say social networks have too much control over the mix of news people see, and 55% said the role social-media companies play results in a worse mix of news, per the Pew survey. Only 15% of Americans say the influence that sites like Facebook exert results in a better mix of news, while 28% believe their efforts make no real difference.
Some of Zuckerberg’s critics aren’t buying into the narrative that Facebook News will help turn the tide.
“The Facebook News tab is a shiny new object to distract from the damage Zuckerberg has done to journalism and a ploy to steal journalists’ content without compensating us,” Laura Bassett, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project and former senior politics editor for HuffPost, said in a statement Friday. “This initiative will only further his agenda to derail the journalism industry, so that Facebook can be the bearer of all the news.”