Facebook News: US publishers happy with cash for content - but say project is a 'PR move'

From January 2021, after years of pressure from publishers and politicians, Facebook will begin paying UK news outlets to use their content.

The introduction of ‘Facebook News’ to the UK comes just over a year after the scheme was first launched in the US.

Ahead of the UK launch, and as part of our new Platform Profile series, Press Gazette today speaks to US publishers about their experiences – the pros and cons – of working with Facebook News.

(We’ve also run recent Platform Profiles on Instagram, NewsNow, Substack, Shutterstock, Upday, LinkedIn and Apple News/ Apple News+.)

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What is Facebook News?

Facebook News represents the latest attempt by Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant to provide users with reliable news coverage, while also making publishers (and possibly regulators) happy.

Its previous big news project, Instant Articles – which promised publishers a fair share of its advertising revenue in exchange for their content – turned out to be something of a flop. In the years after its 2015 launch, a series of high-profile titles began to pull out.

The Guardian, for example, stopped offering its content through Instant Articles in 2017, citing “woeful” financial returns. In 2018, a Tow Center investigation found that more than half of Facebook’s original Instant Articles cohort was no longer working with the platform.

Fast-forward to 2019, and Facebook began speaking to publishers about paying to license their content. The Wall Street Journal, which is a participant in Facebook News, reported at the time that the largest publishers – including the New York Times, ABC News, the Washington Post and Bloomberg – were being offered $3m a year to take part.

The social media company announced the launch of Facebook News in certain locations across the US in October 2019, and expanded it across the country in June this year.

The video below shows what Facebook News looks like for users.

It now plans to roll out Facebook News to the UK, Germany, France, India and Brazil. The UK launch is scheduled for January 2021.

What have US publishers made of Facebook News?

For one large US metropolitan news outlet spoken to by Press Gazette, the opportunity to sign up for Facebook News in 2019 was a “no-brainer”.

The publisher, like others of its size, was offered a three-year deal, worth $500,000 a year, to license some of its content to Facebook. Smaller publications are understood to have been offered lesser deals, while large national newsgroups are believed to be making millions of dollars a year (as per the Wall Street Journal article cited above) from Facebook News.

A senior source at the metropolitan outlet, who did not want to be identified, said that they would have wanted more money – and that they expect to strike up a larger deal in the future – but added: “A half-a-million-dollar payout, for a publisher of our size, it gets your attention.”

The source said that the short agreement signed with Facebook was a “take it or leave it” deal with little room for negotiation and a hard deadline for acceptance.

But the terms were agreeable, with “no audience hurdles and no minimum thresholds needing to be met” by the publisher (although Facebook could opt to not work with the company in the future).

As part of the Facebook News relationship, this publisher has a set-up where a small portion (around 10%) of its content is automatically made available on the platform, meaning it is low maintenance.

The source added, though, that their outlet gains little from the relationship beyond the $500,000-a-year licensing payment. Their presence on Facebook News, they said, has made little difference to website traffic.

They also acknowledged that Facebook’s decision to pay for content is likely a calculated political move, with the social media giant facing regulatory crackdowns across the world.

“It was a good PR move by Facebook,” the source said. “They were trying to work out how much money they needed to give us. And, frankly, they were trying to stop us from getting really meaningful licensing revenue from platforms [through regulations, like those being introduced in Australia].”

Another source spoke to by Press Gazette, representing a larger publication that works with Facebook News, was more positive about the experience.

As well as being offered higher payments from Facebook, larger titles appear to benefit from greater exposure on the News tab.

“If you want to get traffic and exposure on these products, you’ve got to get on to the top stories module, which is typically the first experience a user has when they open the app,” they said. “And that involves lots of active participation and pitching with the Facebook editorial team… If you don’t get into the top stories, I could see that being a disappointing experience.”

They added that having a strong presence on Facebook News has helped their publication reach a larger audience. “Facebook has such enormous reach. Everybody is trying to fill the top of their funnels and get new users right now, and we’re no different.”

Meredith Kopit Levien, chief executive of the New York Times Company, was asked about his company’s involvement in Facebook News at a virtual UBS investor conference this week.

She explained that the New York Times – which was one of the early Instant Article drop-outs – considers several factors when deciding whether to work with platforms, including whether doing so will boost its subscription business and help the company monetise its content.

In addition, more recently she said, the NYT has started thinking about whether platforms are offering “sufficient compensation” in recognition of the fact that “it is incredibly expensive and labour-intensive to produce quality journalism, original journalism”.

‘They aren’t paying enough – and not paying enough publishers’

David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance, which represents publishers across the US, said it was positive that Facebook News is expanding into the UK. But he identified several issues with the US version for publishers.

“The roll-out of the Facebook News Tab in the UK is certainly a good thing,” he said. “The most important aspect is the establishment of the basic principle that quality journalism is valuable and thus it should be valued by the platform.”

He added:  “But the experience in the US has been that they aren’t paying enough – and not paying enough publishers.

“Particularly on the latter point, Facebook is paying a handful of larger publishers and leaving the vast majority of the local news ecosystem out of the deal.

“They could make a lot of progress in the US just by expanding the program and making it more financially meaningful for publishers.”

The verdict

As the case studies above show, for many publishers signing up to Facebook News is a “no-brainer”.

While some outlets do not appear to have enjoyed much of a traffic boost from being on Facebook News, signed-up publishers now have a new source of revenue.

Larger publications, including the New York Times, appear to be happy with both their licensing deals and with the opportunity to reach new audiences.

However, while the current payments are a welcome stopgap, news businesses want more out of their relationships with Facebook. And, with regulators circling the social media giant, publishers will expect to be signing larger licensing deals in the near future.

Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

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