Google is Working on Subscription Tools for News Publishers (Aug 18, 2017)
A study from Oxford University suggests that people who read news articles they find through search engines or social media have much poorer recall of the names of the publications than those who visit those sites directly. Those finding articles through search recalled the names correctly 37% of the time two days later, while those going through social channels recalled 47% correctly, compared with 81% for direct visitors. That’s entirely what I would expect anecdotally, but it’s still stark, and a good indicator of why news organizations seem so unhappy with the role of companies like Google and Facebook even though they seem little pacified by those companies’ efforts to better meet their needs. At root, this isn’t just a monetization or traffic problem but a fundamental disintermediation of the relationship between these publications and their audiences, which causes much lower brand recall and loyalty and removes much of the power to drive traffic from the publications themselves. That’s pretty much impossible to fix, and that’s a challenge both for news publishers and for the platforms, which would like to smooth things over with them but are relatively powerless to do so without big changes in the way they operate. However, the details of the study are well worth reading too – the differences aren’t consistent across publications, suggesting that at least some have broken through the challenges of aggregation and established distinctive enough brands for themselves to achieve recall anyway, so there is at least some hope. The whole article here is well worth a read.
Snapchat Launches Daily NBC News Show (Jul 19, 2017)
Google Upgrades Feed, its Google Now Replacement (Jul 19, 2017)
Facebook Confirms News Subscriptions Coming in October (Jul 19, 2017)
Campbell Brown, the former news anchor Facebook appointed as head of News Partnerships in January, has finally confirmed what’s been rumored for some time now, namely that Facebook is readying a subscription product for newspapers. It sounds like it will adopt the familiar though not universal approach of allowing readers to access ten articles before having to pay for a subscription to a given publication, though it’s not clear that the ten articles will include those readers read separately in their browsers, so that will be a key point for papers to nail down before signing up. Another will be payments and how those will work, since Facebook still doesn’t have credit card details from the vast majority of its users. Since some publications don’t allow any free articles before the paywall kicks in, this won’t be a perfect or universal solution, but on paper should neutralize one of the big criticisms of Facebook’s gobbling up of news consumption. However, given that this has been in the works for some time, and the largest publications will be aware of that, the recent PR push by the News Media Alliance against both Facebook and Google suggests that it certainly won’t assuage all their concerns. Update: also today, Facebook announced analytics for Instant Articles with support from Nielsen, to allow publishers to compare results from their IA and web-based versions. The lack of comparable analytics has been another bugbear for the news organizations using IA, so this should check another box in resolving those concerns, at least on paper.
The News Media Alliance, an industry group representing major newspapers, is beginning a push, launched with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from its president, to get permission from Congress to act collectively in negotiating with Facebook and Google. I’m linking here to a piece in the New York Times on the topic, but it’s from the media columnist and therefore almost as much opinion as reporting, something I’ve found with most of the stories on this, which feels a little ironic. But the thrust of both the op-ed and the opinion side of the New York Times piece is that the news industry is being lorded over by the digital giants, and that single publications or even media groups are powerless to negotiate better relationships without being able to bargain collectively. That, in turn, would be a violation of antitrust rules unless Congress were to pass legislation providing legal cover, something it seems rather unlikely to do, especially in the current political climate. The op-ed is disingenuous to say the least – this is the money quote, in my opinion: “But the two digital giants don’t employ reporters: They don’t dig through public records to uncover corruption, send correspondents into war zones, or attend last night’s game to get the highlights. They expect an economically squeezed news industry to do that costly work for them.” That feels like a distortion of the true relationship here, which is that Google and Facebook both point people to the content those people find interesting, including content from major newspapers. If those newspapers decide to make that content available for free either on their sites or through Instant Articles or AMP, that’s their decision. But that’s not nearly the same as those companies doing that work “for” Google or Facebook. While the idea that the newspapers face an imbalance of power in negotiating individually with Facebook and Google has more merit, it’s also disingenuous to argue that these two companies are somehow singlehandedly responsible for the inequitable distribution of advertising revenue between them, given their respective audience sizes and all else that ails newspapers and their business models. At the same time, it’s worth noting that Facebook is pushing ahead with its plans for subscriptions and other improvements to how it works with publishers, but publications including the New York Times continue to be skeptical of those changes, which makes one wonder just what these papers would kind of relationship with these companies the papers would find acceptable. All of this merely reinforces my sense that the companies don’t really have any solutions to propose, but in fact are angling for some kind of punitive regulatory action against these companies on the basis of their size and influence.
News Corp Says Nearing Deal with Facebook on Subscriptions (Jun 23, 2017)
This is really just an update on an earlier piece, which you can also read for free here. News Corp is merely confirming that the talks are in an advanced stage. See that earlier piece for my take on this broad trend, which promises to finally give news publications what they really want from Facebook.
Just a quick one here: I wrote about Alphabet company Jigsaw’s machine learning-based approach to online content moderation a while back. At the time, I said it was nice to see AI and machine learning being applied to humdrum every problems that actually needed solving, but back then this was merely a concept that Jigsaw was making available. So it’s great validation for the technology that the New York Times is actually adopting it in a modified, customized form it’s developed with Jigsaw. That should both improve comment moderation on the Times website while also giving the underlying technology a boost, presumably making other news organizations more likely to try it.
Facebook has been doing a great deal to reach out to news publications recently and let them know that it has their interests at heart, something which has occasionally been in doubt. However, despite all the soft enticements it’s offered to get publications to work with Facebook and use its Instant Articles feature, the big thing publications have wanted is a business model other than advertising, namely subscriptions. It sounds like Facebook is now working on that feature, which would allow users to pay for subscriptions to publications from within its apps. Apple News, of course, already offers that options, but it’s been a closed rather than open platform so far and though I was expecting it to open up more in iOS 11, there’s no word of that so far from Apple. I would guess Facebook would start with a narrower program too and open up somewhat over time. So although this is good news for whichever pubs get included in the first round, many will likely have to wait even longer. But this is a good first step in giving news publications something they probably want more than anything else from Facebook right now.
In our second news item about proprietary news formats today, Apple has hired Lauren Kern as its first Editor in Chief for Apple News. She was previously executive editor at New York Magazine and then took on more of a managerial role across several publications owned by the parent company. Apple has lots of editors today, but their role is curatorial rather than truly editorial, and I wonder if that will change with Kern’s appointment. Apple is purely an aggregation platform for today, but we could see it do more with pulling news together on a particular topic and perhaps highlighting the best coverage. Kern’s magazine background might also suggest a focus on more long-form content, which Apple could either continue to curate or perhaps begin to create or commission itself. Apple News as a platform has done relatively well, driving some decent traffic for at least some publishers, but doesn’t have nearly the reach of Facebook’s Instant Articles or the Google-led AMP format. It’s also at the early stages from a monetization perspective, offering only ads as a business model broadly and then subscriptions only for a handful of publications today. I would expect the subscription model to open up later this year, probably with an announcement at WWDC in a couple of weeks, so that would be another interesting angle for Kern to work on.
I’m generally a skeptic of proprietary or customized forms of web publishing because I believe they create extra work for publishers, which in turn takes us back to earlier eras when smaller publishers weren’t able to compete with larger publishers on a level playing field (this is something I’ve written about in detail here). But they also have other objectionable aspects, including making some very powerful companies more powerful. Facebook’s Instant Articles is a great example of all that, and it’s struggled to gain momentum in part because it’s not clear to most publishers that it actually helps them make more money than simply linking out to their sites, and in part because it doesn’t support any kind of payment method today. Facebook’s Journalism Project, on the other hand, is supposed to address some of publishers’ frustrations, and as part of Facebook’s response to those frustrations, it’s tweaking its SDK for Instant Articles to add support for the Google-led AMP format and eventually also for Apple News. That could help assuage concerns about having to publish in four different formats separately (FB IA, AMP, Apple News, and the web), but it’s obviously only helpful to those publishers big enough or tech-savvy enough to work with an SDK and a custom CMS to feed it. And it does nothing to address the very real monetization issues or the sense of loss of control that has caused some publishers to pull back from Instant Articles lately. This feels like an inadequate bandaid rather than a real solution. Above all, Facebook needs to bring on the monetization tools pronto.
via Facebook Media
Facebook is taking additional steps to lower the ranking of clickbait articles in the News Feed, something it began explicitly targeting last year. In the past, it’s used a combination of signals including the ratio of reads to shares to determine whether an article over-promises and under-delivers, and down-ranking sites and domains which persistently post clickbait. But it’s now examining the actual content of the headline for both withholding information and exaggeration and lowering the ranking for those pieces which exhibit these characteristics. On the one hand, this is a good thing: less of this content in Facebook means we’re all more likely to read worthwhile stories that actually tell us something useful or meaningful. But on the other hand, this stuff has always existed and no-one has ever attempted to regulate it in the way Facebook now is. Unlike fake news, which has the power to sway elections and have other significant negative real-world impacts, clickbait has far less real-world impact. And if people continue to click on those headlines, it suggests they’re interested in reading the contents whether or not the headlines are misleading or manipulative. The stuff wouldn’t be shared by users on Facebook or show up in the News Feed in the first place if it wasn’t popular, which means Facebook is making value judgments here which not all of its users would agree with. As with Google’s frequent tweaking of its search algorithms to suppress sites with behaviors it disapproves of, I always feel this is dangerous territory.
I recently shared an item about Facebook struggling to help publishers monetize their traffic through Instant Articles, and this article now suggests that Apple News is actually doing fairly well in generating traffic (though not much revenue) for publishers. That gels with what I’ve heard from other sources, who say Apple News is now bringing them decent sized audiences, but isn’t giving them all the tools they need to monetize their content on the platform (analytics and integration with third party services like Nielsen are still pretty rudimentary). I think Apple News has made big strides, and arguably gives publishers a lot more control over how their content appears, while also being the only one of the three big proprietary news formats (Apple News, Facebook IA, and Google’s AMP) to allow for paid subscriptions. It’s got a long way still to go, and those subscriptions are still only open to very few publishers, but it sounds like it’s making some decent progress in building an audience which is willing to consume news content through the app.
Washington Post Culls Ad Tech Vendors Over Site Slowing (Apr 19, 2017)
There’s some good reporting here about publishers starting to pull their content back from Facebook’s Instant Articles. When it first launched, I think publishers were at the very least keen to experiment with it, and in many cases felt they had little choice but to participate out of fear that non-IA content would be deprioritized by Facebook’s News Feed algorithms. That publishers (including the New York Times) are starting to pull back is a sign both that the format is underperforming badly and that content owners have confidence that they can buck Facebook’s first party platform without negative consequences. That’s a good counterpoint to all the stories about Facebook’s power and how little choice content owners have about publishing to Facebook natively. It remains to be seen whether these publishers will see the same monetization and traffic now as they did before IA debuted, because if that’s the comparison organizations are making they may be disappointed. But all this also explains why Facebook has been working so much harder lately to cater to news publishers in particular, with its Journalism Project, new calls to action and subscription (though not paid subscription) options, and listening tours. It’s clearly worried that it’s losing the battle here and needs to do more.