Facebook is testing adding a new button (an “i” in a circle) on articles in the News Feed on the platform, which will bring up additional context relating to the article, including a brief summary description of the publication from Wikipedia (if its profile merits an entry), related articles, and where the piece is being read and shared. All of this is intended to serve as a set of subtle signals about the reputability of the publication and the content of the article, without explicitly rating it in the way the much more robust (but therefore also less frequently available) fact checking initiative Facebook announced earlier in the year. The main problem I see with this approach is that the button itself doesn’t highlight any particular articles – the reader has to proactively decide to find out whether there might be interesting information hidden behind it, something many readers won’t be inclined to do, especially if they’re the credulous type most likely to fall for fake news in the first place. As such, this is an interesting additional set of tools, but not one that’s likely to make a meaningful difference in combating fake news on Facebook.
Facebook, Google, and Twitter Struggle to Contain Fake News in the Wake of Las Vegas Shooting (Oct 3, 2017)
I had this in my list of items to cover yesterday but it was a busy day for other news and I’d already covered a couple of Facebook stories, so I decided to hold it over to today given that it was likely to continue to be newsworthy. This BuzzFeed piece does a good job rounding up some of the issues with Facebook, Google, and Twitter properties in the wake of the awful shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night. Each of these platforms struggled in some way to filter fake news and uninformed speculation from accurate, reliable, news reporting in the wake of the shooting. Each eventually responded to the issue and fixed things, but not before many people saw (and reported on) some of the early misleading results. And it does feel as though some of the issues they saw were easily avoidable by limiting which sites might be considered legitimate sources of news ahead of time, or at the very least requiring new sites claiming to break news to pass some sort of human review before being cited. Normally, I’d say this would blow over quickly and wouldn’t matter that much, but in the current political context around Facebook, Google, and so on, it’ll probably take on broader meaning.
The two halves of this story have been bouncing around for a while now, but it seems they’re finally official. We’ve been hearing for some time about plans to end Google’s “First Click Free” policy, which gave newspapers the option of making their paywalls porous to search users or forgoing traffic from search, and its replacement is now being announced. It stops punishing publishers for not offering free access to articles, while giving publishers more granular control over how many free news items users of Google search get before they hit the paywall. At the same time, Google is talking (again) about plans to help news organizations drive subscriptions. As I’ve said repeatedly, both Facebook and Google are viewed with distrust by the news industry, but the former has at least been visibly acknowledging the tension and seeking to do something about it, while Google has been slower to act. It’s good to see it finally making changes now, although the subscription tools won’t debut until next year are are still not being spelled out in detail.
via New York Times
The Street reports that Facebook’s soon-to-be-launched subscription offering for news publishers won’t have some key newspapers on board at launch, notably the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Financial Times. It will, though, apparently have the Tronc and Hearst Newspaper Groups, the Economist, and the Washington Post as launch partners. The former group, notably the Times and Journal (and parent company News Corp) have been among the most skeptical about all of Facebook’s news initiatives, and among the most distinctive brands in news, so it’s not a huge surprise that they won’t be on board, but it’s still a bit of a blow. I’d argue, though, that Facebook doesn’t need broad support from newspapers for this program in the same way as an aggregation app like Apple News does, simply because articles from those publishers will still be shared and in some cases posted on Facebook and in some cases carry Facebook ads, they just won’t be monetized through subscriptions. Since Facebook won’t be taking a cut anyway, that doesn’t actually matter all that much.
The Financial Times reports that Google is working on an AI-based tool that will help publishers identify possible subscribers for their newspapers. This is a somewhat fleshed-out version of a report from a month ago on Bloomberg, which had fewer details but said Google was testing a number of different approaches. As a reminder, the context here is the tension between news organizations and both Google and Facebook over business models, the increasing power of the internet companies, and the challenges of selling online subscriptions and building brands when search and social serve as channels for so much news consumption. As I’ve said before, Facebook began taking this tension seriously some time ago and pouring oil on troubled waters, but it seems to have taken Google longer to come around, and it’s still mostly at the testing stage in its efforts. Putting AI to work in the service of solving the problem is a classic Google move, but it remains to be seen how effective that will actually be. Certainly, the publishers quoted by the FT seem heartened but not yet won over by Google’s new approach.
via Financial Times
This article is a bit of an oddity – the Wall Street Journal reporting on the Wall Street Journal – but the news itself is important: Google is relaxing the policy that currently penalizes sites like the Journal which no longer allow Google searchers to view an article linked from search results for free. Since the Journal instituted that change, it’s seen traffic from Google (which in turn is likely a big chunk of total traffic) drop enormously, because sites that don’t participate in Google’s “first click free” program are penalized in search results. This is yet another sign of a softening at Google towards news organizations, which have been increasingly critical of its (and Facebook’s) power over them, though Google still seems to be months if not a year behind Facebook in coming around and making serious concessions.
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.