Facebook unveils News Tab, plans to pay selected publishers

Social media giant launches a news section and announces plans to pay some media organisations for headlines.

    Facebook says a small team of 'seasoned' journalists it employs will choose the headlines [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
    Facebook says a small team of 'seasoned' journalists it employs will choose the headlines [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

    Facebook announced plans to pay a selection of media organisations for news headlines as the social media giant unveiled the "News Tab".

    The new section in the Facebook mobile app will display headlines - and nothing else - from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, NBC, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

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    Local stories from several of the largest US cities will also make the grade; headlines from smaller towns are on their way, Facebook said.

    Tapping on those headlines will take you directly to publisher websites or apps, if you have any installed, which is more or less what publishers have been requesting from Facebook for years.

    It is potentially a big step for a platform that has long struggled with both stamping out misinformation and making nice with struggling purveyors of news.

    Though media watchers remain sceptical that Facebook is really committed to helping sustain the news industry.

    Stable relationships

    Facebook declined to say who is getting paid and how much, saying only it will be paying "a range of publishers for access to all of their content".

    Just last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was not sure it "makes sense" to pay news outlets for their material.

    But now, as Zuckerberg said in an interview: "There's an opportunity to set up new long-term, stable financial relationships with publishers."

    News executives have long been unhappy about the extent to which digital giants such as Facebook make use of their stories - mostly by displaying headlines and short summaries when users post news links.

    A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress this year would grant an antitrust exemption to news companies, letting them band together to negotiate payments from the big tech platforms.

    "It's a good direction that they're willing for the first time to value and pay for news content," said David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance, a publisher trade group. "The trouble is that most publishers aren't included."

    Zuckerberg said Facebook aims to set up partnerships with a "wide range" of publishers.

    "We think that this is an opportunity to build something quite meaningful here," he said. "We're going to have journalists curating this, we are really focused on provenance and branding and where the stories come from."

    In a statement, the Los Angeles Times said it expects the Facebook effort will help expand its readership and digital subscribers.

    Facebook killed its previous effort to curate news, the ill-fated Trending topics, in 2018.

    Conservatives complained about political bias, leading Facebook to fire its human editors and automate the section until it began recycling false stories, after which the social giant shut it down entirely.

    But what happens when the sprawling social network plays news editor?

    An approach that sends people news based on what they have liked before could over time elevate stories with greater "emotional resonance" over news that "allows public discourse to take place", said Edward Wasserman, dean of the graduate journalism programme at the University of California-Berkeley.

    "It deepens my concern that they'll be applying Facebook logic to news judgment," he added.

    Fact checking

    The social network has come under criticism for its news judgment recently.

    In September, it removed a fact check from Science Feedback that called out an anti-abortion activist's video for claiming that abortion is never medically necessary. Republican senators had complained about the fact check.

    Facebook said a small team of "seasoned" journalists it employs will choose the headlines for the "Today's Story" section of the tab, designed to "catch you up" on the day's news.

    The rest of the news section will be populated with stories algorithmically based on users' interests.

    That sounds similar to the approach taken by Apple News, a free iPhone app. But Apple's effort to contract with news organisations has been slow to take off.

    Apple News Plus, a $10-a-month paid version, remains primarily a hub for magazines; other news publishers have largely sat it out.

    Apple's service reportedly offered publishers only half the revenue it pulled in from subscriptions, divided according to how popular publishers were with readers.

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    SOURCE: AP news agency