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.
This is the second fake news-combatting announcement this week, after Facebook’s announcement about teaching users how to spot fake news yesterday. This is one of the broadest and most direct steps Google has taken in this area, and will specifically flag particular news articles or other sites with an additional link to a fact checking site such as Snopes or PolitiFact with a brief summary of who is making a claim and whether those sites consider it to be true. This is somewhat similar to Facebook’s effort to flag fake news, but the big difference is that it will be done algorithmically through special markup those sites will use, which will be picked by Google’s crawlers. That should mean that at least in some cases Google will flag something as false long before Facebook will, and I’d hope that Facebook would move to do something similar over time too.
Facebook seems to be taking its responsibility to help police fake news ever more seriously, and today announced another step in that effort: showing users a popup card at the top of their feed which offers to teach them how to spot fake news. I’d love to think this could make a meaningful difference in people’s ability to discern truth from error, but realistically the kind of people who most need this training will be least likely to click on it, in part at least because Facebook’s previous efforts in this area have been seen as partisan rather than neutral by those most likely to read, believe, and share fake news. But it’s good to see Facebook trying, and it may at least give some more moderate users pause before they share fake news on the site.
Facebook is on a big listening tour for local media — and publishers are actually happy – Mashable (Mar 6, 2017)
When Facebook announced its Journalism Project a few weeks ago (and hired Campbell Brown to take a leadership role within it), it said all the right words about wanting to partner with news organizations and help them be successful. But the problem with platforms like Facebook and Google is those promising words have often rung hollow as they’ve subsequently pursued initiatives and products which ended up threatening rather than helping the media industry, and news sites in particular. It’s heartening, then, to see that Facebook seems to be engaging in a fairly genuine way with news organizations, and actually listening to them and their concerns. This article also suggests that these organizations are responding positively to some of the new ad options Facebook is introducing (though of course it remains to be seen how Facebook users respond to things like a higher ad load in Instant Articles and mid-roll video ads). It’s early days still, but there are at least some signs that Facebook means what it says about partnering in healthier ways with content partners.
This is the second of two fake news stories this morning (the first concerned Facebook), and this one doesn’t look so good for Google. Google has long pull excerpts out of search results in order to provide what it deems to be the answers to questions, as a way to get people to what they’re looking for faster. For undisputed facts, like what time the Super Bowl starts or how old a movie star is, that’s very useful and unobjectionable. But the problem is that Google has algorithms designed to find these answers for almost any question people might ask, and in an era of fake news, some questions and the ostensible answers are driven entirely by conspiracy theories and false reporting, which means that the right answer doesn’t even appear anywhere online. So it’s snippets serve up answers exclusively from fake news and conspiracy sites, as if these were incontrovertible, lending them an air of considerable authority, and causing many users to take those answers as gospel. The simple solution here is for Google to back way off from this snippets approach and limit it to questions that are both frequently asked and also answered by a wide range of sites including reputable ones. I don’t know whether Google will take that approach, but it’s going to be very hard for it to solve the problem in any other way.
via The Outline
Facebook has started to flag fake news stories – Recode (Mar 6, 2017)
This was part of Facebook’s plan for dealing with fake news, announced back in December, so there’s no huge surprise here. But Recode picks up on several points worth noting, most importantly that because Facebook is relying on third party fact checkers, vetting fake news stories can often take quite some time, even when they come from a publication known to publish only false news stories. That’s problematic because by the time the “disputed” label is attached, many people will have seen and believed the story, and attaching it a week after it first surfaces will likely have little impact, especially on a high profile and popular story. It really feels like Facebook needs a separate label for entire fake news publications which is applied automatically to its links – that would be straightforward and far more useful, and could still be done in cooperation with fact checking organizations. But if Snopes and Politifact are going to be really useful, they have to move much faster on this stuff. Here’s hoping Facebook becomes less hesitant and pushes its partners to act more quickly, so that this tool can become really useful.
Though Facebook bears the brunt of criticism among the tech industry’s largest players for its role in spreading and/or failing to stem the spread of fake news, it’s worth noting that others play their roles too. Though Google search has been mentioned quite a bit, YouTube hasn’t been mentioned nearly as much, and yet this article argues there’s tons of fake news video content on YouTube, which goes essentially un-policed by the site. YouTube itself responds that it only curates legitimate news sources for its official channels, but of course many of the creators of this fake news content are making money off that content through YouTube’s ad model. Since Google shut down its ad platform on third party sites which focused on fake news, it’s arguable that it should apply the same policy here too, something it so far doesn’t seem willing to do.
This is a great idea, and I hope we’ll see a lot more of this kind of innovation around news – we need it. One of the things I’m most struck by almost daily is the different universes that I’m a part of on Twitter and Facebook – during the day, I’m surrounded by mostly very liberal perspectives among the coastal tech people I follow on Twitter, and in the evenings at weekend I spend more time on Facebook, where the people I’m connected to tend to be more conservative. But I suspect many of us inhabit mostly one or other of these worlds, or tend to shut out those perspectives which are different from our own on social media, tending to reinforce our perceptions and prejudices. Not everyone will go for this kind of experiment – some may choose to continue to see a narrower view of the world, but we could all benefit from putting ourselves in others’ shoes and seeing the news through other lenses than our own.
Google makes it easier to see and share publishers’ real URLs from AMP pages – Search Engine Land (Feb 6, 2017)
One of the biggest frustrations publishers have had with Google’s AMP format is that it takes over the URL of the site where the content originates. Given that many URLs are shared in shortened form in Twitter clients and similar venues, this often means all the viewer sees is a google.com domain, which can be confusing. This tweak to the AMP settings doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that AMP pages use Google URLs, but offers a workaround of sorts allowing users to share the canonical original URL for the publication instead. That’s a start, but the domain issue and other reasons not to like AMP and other similar formats like Facebook Instant Articles remain.
Google and Facebook to help French newsrooms combat ‘fake news’ ahead of presidential election – VentureBeat (Feb 6, 2017)
If only these companies had made such a concerted effort to combat fake news in the US a year ago rather than only really springing into action in the very late stages of last year’s presidential campaign (and in Facebook’s case, mostly after it was over). It appears both companies are taking their duty to put accuracy above ad revenue a bit more seriously in France than they did in the US, a sign of increased realism about the power that each company has in shaping the news people see.