Facebook’s Track Record Should Temper Hopes for News Tab Push

Facebook’s Track Record Should Temper Hopes
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

Facebook has a long and complicated history with news publishers. 

It has directly funded publishers to create certain types of content (live and on-demand video), helped build up the brands of digital media companies like BuzzFeed and HuffPost in the early 2010s and even pledged to outright help prop up newsrooms many times before.

But Facebook has also appeared to be a bit of a villainous figure to media companies. It cut back funding on live content after betting big on it in 2016, told news publishers it might cut funding for news shows on Watch and tweaked its algorithm to favor user content over publisher content (which resulted in casualties).

So that’s why Facebook’s latest announcement that it’s planning on expanding its newish dedicated news tab (first started testing in the U.S. in Oct. 2019) to international territories, including the U.K., Germany and France, over the next year is a bit of a mixed bag for news execs.

On one hand, Reuters Institute’s 2020 Digital News Report found that Facebook has comfortably remained the social platform by which consumers most often get news from across countries such as the U.K., Germany, France and Brazil — four of the five places where Facebook announced it is considering expanding its news tab.

And Facebook is planning on paying certain publishers for their content in the news tab, which means more revenue could be coming soon for certain international news outlets that may still be hurting from the pandemic in six months to a year. 

That revenue stream could be big for some, although payment details are unclear. When the news tab began testing in the U.S. last year, one participating publishing executive told AdAge that Facebook is paying some media companies $1 million to $3 million for their content (though not all participating pubs are necessarily paid). 

That seems like easy money to accept for publishers who already rely on Facebook as a traffic referral source.

Still, international publishers probably shouldn’t put too much stock into the planned international news tab launch just yet, until it becomes clearer that the tab is taking off in the U.S. Participating U.S. publishers told Digiday months ago they were unsure about how beneficial the news tab was to them.

And while over 250 million use Facebook in the U.S. and Canada, the news tab initially rolled out to hundreds of thousands of U.S. users — that could have prevented the tab from making a big initial splash. It finally became available broadly in the U.S. in June

Keep in mind, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg last year also said he expects the news tab to reach 20 million to 30 million users eventually, although he conceded that could take years. In May, Facebook told Digiday “millions” were using the tab at that time but wouldn’t elaborate.

Additionally, the success of the news tab is a double-edged sword of sorts for publishers: More traffic to the tab could encourage Facebook to continue paying some companies for their content, but it also means less readership of news articles/headlines on pubs’ owned properties, which likely provide greater reader insights than Facebook’s walled garden. 

Facebook’s history of enthusiastically backing — and then cooling on — various media projects (remember Instant Articles?) also should leave some publishers cautious. 

Still, at the end of the day, Facebook’s announcement will generate interest among news companies overseas. Its dominance in the social space gives it that ability to be forgiven, or at least begrudgingly embraced, when other digital platforms wouldn’t.