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Unbreaking the News

Facebook offers publishers another Faustian bargain

It hardly needs rehashing that a steep decline in the business of journalism ranks among the many casualties that Facebook has inflicted on the public sphere. Starved of advertising revenue, financially stable news institutions are about as rare as a cogent campaign appearance by Joe Biden. Local reporting has wilted, with the phrase “news deserts” joining the vernacular to describe the approximately 1,300 U.S. communities now deprived of it. The recent, sudden shutdowns of Pacific Standard and Governing magazine—announced on the same day—only served to reinforce the precarious aura surrounding news media, part of a widely shared sense that entire publications, and perhaps the industry itself, could disappear at any moment. We live in pre-apocalyptic times.

Sure, patches of light exist amid the doom and gloom. A few billionaire-backed publications, like the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, remain in good standing, while the New York Times continues to be a pace-setter in a beleaguered field. Buoyed by nearly five million digital subscribers and forays into streaming television, the Times recently reported a $37.9 million quarterly profit. But these are exceptions in an industry whose fundamental viability remains in doubt.

That brings us back to Facebook, which, for the umpteenth time, has come up with a program designed to save journalism—or at least delay its ignominious demise. But like nearly everything Facebook does, the initiative has the air of something hastily conceived and self-serving, throwing some money at a problem that’s far more expansive than Facebook seems willing to admit. The plan goes like this: Facebook will create a News tab in its main feed that will host content from familiar brand names like the Washington Post, Bloomberg, ABC News, and Wall Street Journal parent company Dow Jones. In return for licensing this content, Facebook will pay some kind of fee. The amount may vary, but the highest number thrown around in early reporting has been $3 million, paid annually. That’s not much—for the Post, it might cover the salaries of torture-promoter Marc Thiessen and a few of his fellow neocon ghouls on the op-ed page. But in this realm of low expectations, it’s a start—a surprising willingness by Facebook to signal that it believes good content is worth something and that its creators should be compensated accordingly. (Forgive me for using the cardboard term “content,” but it’s become sadly de rigueur in these conversations, a linguistic indicator of how little we value this stuff.)

Having made obscene fortunes by cannibalizing the news industry’s advertising base and stealing its content, Google and Facebook now hope to earn back some goodwill with a few handouts.

Early reviews from journalism mandarins were understandably pessimistic. A more sensible program would arguably depend on an even split in advertising revenue and not on a fee-based model that doesn’t account for traffic or popularity. But under the current plan, it appears that a wildly successful publisher on Facebook would be paid just as much as Bloomberg for chumming the waters with its homilies to the free market. Based on the outlets named as potential participants, the program also seems restricted to what Facebook presumably considers an inoffensive group of publishers who display no obvious bias. (Whether you agree with this tepid assessment of corporate media’s objectivity is another matter.) In other words, you probably won’t be seeing your favorite left-wing publications anytime soon in the Facebook News tab, though Fox News may sneak in, perhaps in a false effort at balance, or to drown out the growing chorus of right-wing commentators who claim that social media companies are silencing them—a rallying whine frequently taken up by Trump himself.

Facebook isn’t alone in throwing money at the news industry and hoping something sticks. Together with Google and a range of think tanks and philanthropies, hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into quixotic efforts to make a broken business model work. A few months ago, Google announced the Local Experiments Project, an effort designed to do something about the growing news desert phenomenon. An initial partnership with McClatchy will see Google funding three digital newsrooms, with dozens more to come. None of these initiatives are misguided per se, but they have the feel of late-in-the-day indulgences purchased to make up for past crimes. Having made obscene fortunes by cannibalizing the news industry’s advertising base and stealing its content, Google and Facebook now hope to earn back some goodwill with a few handouts. Instead, they dramatize the problem with most billionaire-driven philanthropy: the largesse of corporate hegemons can’t replace a vigorous public sphere, where progressive taxation and a strong regulatory apparatus prevent the rise of would-be monopolies like Google and Facebook. We have the order of things all backward, with trillion-dollar companies belatedly dispensing charitable contributions to try to absolve themselves for the problems they helped create.

We’ve also been here before. Google AMP, Google News Lab, Google News Fellowship, Facebook Live, Facebook Watch, Facebook Instant Articles—the list of news-boosting commercial products and charitable efforts sits uneasily alongside a history of utter failure. Where there’s not incompetence or sudden changes in corporate policy (e.g. pivots to video and then back again), there’s been outright fraud. Facebook, according to one lawsuit, inflated its video metrics, which helped drive publishers away from text and toward video—moves that precipitated hundreds of layoffs at publications like Mashable and Mic, who invested heavily in this shift.

None of these initiatives are misguided per se, but they have the feel of late-in-the-day indulgences purchased to make up for past crimes.

The problems remain existential and almost too big to address. Publishers seem to feel little choice but to go along with the Facebook-Google duopoly, complying with whatever plan the Facebook team comes with up to juice attention and keep people on the platform. Who could blame them? Facebook and Google have the money, technology, customers, user attention, and advertising revenue. Despite producing a product essential to the Facebook platform, publishers have no negotiating leverage.

And so once again, it’s time for journalism to turn to its tech saviors, who also happen to be the industry’s greatest antagonists. Maybe this time it will really work. Maybe a stable, mutually remunerative partnership will develop. Maybe people will learn to value reporting again. Maybe the media industry will take one more step toward stability and maybe the profits will come back, the jobs too, and we won’t have to keep reliving this banal hype cycle that always ends in failure.

Maybe. But probably not.