Commentary

Facebook News Isn't A Game-Changer For Publishers

Facebook this week rolled out a section for publisher content to all users of the social network in the U.S., following a test that started last fall. The new Facebook News section still feels like an afterthought for the company, judging from its poorly designed interface and aimless collection of stories.

I'd really be surprised if any publisher generates much web traffic from the news aggregation service, especially local news outlets that have borne the brunt of business lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Then again, Facebook says it has 253 million users in the U.S. and Canada. Other research indicates that about half of U.S. adults get their news from the social network, making it a formidable force in news media. The company has a website for publishersthat want to get onto its platform.

I'm guessing most news discovery is likely to happen when people share news stories in their individual news feeds, making them visible in the procession of selfies, family pictures and other posts. Otherwise, Facebook users will have to dig around for the feature, which is visible after tapping on the app's three-bar navigation icon.

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Facebook News resembles the news feed in the main part of its app, with a scrollable feed that mercifully ends with the message, "You're caught up for now." That's good to know, because "doom-scrolling"the news these days can become habitual, as tech columnist Nicole Nguyen recently described in The Wall Street Journal.

Above the news feed is a selection of tabs that can be cross-swiped to find news by topic. Looking at Facebook News on June 10, the first tab is labeled "George Floyd Protests," while others have more generic descriptions like "Local," "Sports" and "Health." I'm not sure why I'd click on any of those without seeing a more compelling headline.

Facebook News doesn't edit the headlines from its news providers, which is too bad because they don't read well on a smartphone screen, like this one from The Washington Post: "Flynn committed perjury and his guilty plea of lying to FBI should not be dismissed as DOJ requests, court-appointed expert finds." I'm amazed I got through all five decks of that headline.

The feed also has top stories from each section, though it's not clear how those were chosen.

For example, the top business story is Bloomberg News' "Novogratz's Galaxy, Bakkt Start 'White-Glove' Bitcoin Service." It wouldn't be my first choice for a top business story to highlight, especially since the story sounds like a rewritten press release that makes up most business reporting.

Facebook News also groups news into "spotlight" themes, such as "Unrest in America: Stories about the reactions to and events following George Floyd's death." As the app explains, the stories are selected by a "team of experienced journalists at Facebook." The app has a setting to turn off the curated content and top stories.

It is notable that Facebook News is highlighting local news, given the company's past efforts to help publishers with various grants and programs to support ailing publishers. That feed is paltry and disappointing, only emphasizing the news deserts that fill the U.S. news landscape.

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