Commentary

Facebook's News Plans Won't Help Ailing Publishers

Facebook Inc.’s reported plans to pay news publishers millions of dollars for the rights to publish their articles in a “News” tab on its social network won’t help most publications.

If anything, it will give people another reason to keep using Facebook while avoiding publishers’ websites and mobile apps. The social network's planned news section also gives Facebook greater control over how news is presented, diminishing the brands of media outlets.

I’m basing this assertion on my experience as a subscriber of online news sites and aggregation services like Apple News+, which Apple Inc. launched in March as a digital newsstand with hundreds of magazines and a handful of newspapers.

Reading publications like The Wall Street Journal directly on their websites is a much richer experience than looking at filtered news on Apple News+. After visiting the WSJs website or using its app for 20 minutes, I feel better informed about a wider variety of topics than I do after spending a similar amount of time with Apple News+.

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That's likely because the WSJ saves some of its best stories for its own platforms. The New York Times and The Washington Post aren’t available in Apple News+, making comparisons with their news sites impossible.

Part of the problem with Apple News+ is that it can feel like channel surfing through hundreds of cable channels or looking through dozens of Netflix titles and ultimately deciding not to watch anything. A bigger selection isn’t always better.

It’s not clear how Facebook will help publishers to support their brands as news providers, although there are some clues. The company aims to differentiate its “News” tab from past efforts by linking to publishers’ sites or apps, directing readers outside of its app to read whole articles, the NYT reported.

Funneling readers to other websites would give publishers a chance to capture new readers — and possibly gain paying subscribers. It’s also a better deal than Apple News+, which pulls in entire stories from publishers and splits subscription revenue on a per-view basis.

However, publishers aren’t competing with Apple for ad dollars, as they do with Facebook. The iPhone maker’s revenue mostly comes from hardware sales and subscriptions. Its stricter privacy practices generally work in direct contradiction to cultivating ad business.

As a rival for media budgets, Facebook doesn’t have much incentive to help publishers. Instead of being a sincere effort to help publishers, its development of a “News” tab may be an attempt to defuse antitrust scrutiny and criticism that it has grown too powerful in digital media.

Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have become an oversized digital advertising “duopoly” that’s killing off the publishing industry, critics say. The companies together control about 60% of U.S. digital ad spending, according to researcher eMarketer, and determine how millions of Americans get news.

Some 68% of Americans at least occasionally get their news from social media, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. The group found that 43% of U.S. adults get news from Facebook, while 21% cited Google’s YouTube as a news source. Unfortunately, 57% of people said they expect the information to be mostly inaccurate.

Facebook has also faced criticism for spreading fake news, misinformation and political propaganda, although the company has invested millions of dollars and enlisted thousands of people to help scrub its platform of toxic content.

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