What Could Facebook Do for News?

In two recent posts, I asked what Google could do for news — and vice versa. Now I’ll pose the question about Facebook.

The core of the problem and the opportunity is similar for both: Google and Facebook know more about publishers’ readers than they do. Both services also know more about publishers’ content than they do. So now I’ll ask: Is there a way to share some of that information — or to use the scare word, data — to the benefit of all three parties involved: first the user, then the services and the news organizations?


Google is under pressure especially in Europe, starting with German publishers, then the French, and lately the Spanish, each using their political clout to box the giant in — and it’s working. Google is now in a mood to make friends with the news business and that’s why I wrote those posts, to suggest what I thought could lead to the beginning of a meaningful friendship.

I’ve been anticipating that publishers would turn their glare next to Facebook. To Facebook’s credit, it has gotten an inch ahead by inviting some American publishers in to hear their wishes and woes, and returning in December with four offerings of mutual benefit: First, if a publisher wants, Facebook will post the publisher’s most popular stories to the news feeds of users who’ve liked the publisher — because, after all, Facebook knows what’s popular. Second, Facebook lets publishers target posts on Facebook to users’ interests — e.g., a story about the Giants to Giants fans — because Facebook knows what users want to know. Third, Facebook now shares more information about why a publisher’s post gets popular — e.g., when a celebrity shares one of its stories — because Facebook knows what its users do. Fourth, Facebook lets publishers set an expiry date on posts so they won’t spam users’ feeds with, say, an Oscar preview story after the Oscars are over. So users get more relevant content; publishers get more attention; Facebook gets more value. Good start, but so far, this doesn’t necessarily help publishers’ businesses.

At the Re/code conference, Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, broached the idea of Facebook playing host to publishers’ content, especially on mobile. Could that mean sharing revenue? Data? The reaction hasn’t been all smooches. At The Awl, John Herrman speculated about a world in which Facebook becomes publishers’ content management system. In a savvy post at the FT, Richard Waters understated, “Whether publishers will feel comfortable in this bear hug is debatable.” Last fall, the late David Carr also fretted:

That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike. If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.

These fears about handing one’s fate over to a platform aren’t unwarranted; look at what Twitter just did to Meerkat, cutting off the instant-video network’s access to Twitter’s social graph. Do we really want Facebook to become a CMS and CRM — content management system and customer relationship manager — for us?

Well, maybe we do — under the right circumstances, with the right deal, to mutual benefit. It’s a small matter of product development and negotiation: asking what Facebook could do for news.


Let me start with the suggestion I made for Google: that it enable news articles and other content to be embeddable, like YouTube videos. Thus a publisher’s content could travel the web — going to readers rather than always making readers come to news sites — with the business model attached: a container that includes the publisher’s article, brand, revenue (usually advertising), analytics (that is, data collector), and links. The advertising could be the publisher’s or it could be Google’s depending on who is better at selling it [cough] and what split is offered. That’s the negotiation. Facebook could do the same.

Facebook could go to the next level — a quantum leap, in fact — because it has the environment in which users like to consume and share content and it has überdata about their interests, connections, and behavior. Facebook knows what we Like and what we like. Google just has Google+ (and I say that with kindness and respect as a member of that remote tribe).

Now why the hell would Facebook ever share any of the gold from its rainbow pot? Because it fears that these 98-pound weakling publishers will start bullying it as they have Google? Maybe, but that’s not the foundation of a lasting friendship. Should Facebook feel sorry for publishers? No, it’s publishers’ own damned fault that they continued their mass-media ways online and failed to use the new tools available to them to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve.

Instead, Facebook could — and I believe should — share data about users and content to benefit its users and itself. Enlightened self-interest is the basis of all good products and partnerships.

Imagine this simple scenario: On Facebook, I show an interest in a particular entity or topic — say, I keep giving Jim Brady and my son sympathy for their affection for the Jets or I roll my eyes at the drummed-up media hubbub over Hillary Clinton’s email. I also happen to like, follow, or frequently link to and discuss news outlets that cover these things. Now imagine that Facebook asks me a simple question: Jeff, we see you are interested in these subjects, would you like NJ.com to alert you to news — perhaps just the rare good news — about the Jets? Would you like the Guardian to recommend some intelligent conversation about Clinton?

If I say yes to that question, goodness abounds:
First, I get relevant relevant content from sources I like.
Second — and this is huge — by giving my consent to this transaction, I am cutting off any technopanic about privacy; I asked Facebook to share my information because I got something I valued in return.
Third, I’m not only getting more content of interest to me but I am getting content that might be of interest to friends, which I’m likely to share, and that benefits Facebook: more usage, more connections, more data.
Finally — and this is the money shot — each publisher gets information about me as an individual with a name and can use that with my permission to serve me better not only on Facebook but on its own site and elsewhere on the web. It also has a mechanism to learn what users want.
What’s not to love?

This scheme will not work if Facebook keeps all the data and all the money and can pull the rug out from under the publishers at its whim. Or to put this more positively: This idea could work if readers benefit with more relevance and less noise and if publishers can share in revenue and what’s even more valuable — data — and if they can trust Facebook to act in mutual interest.

I would propose that both the containers for embeddable content and the means of consensual transfer of data about users and interests should be open standards so users can get these benefits of relevance and sharing wherever they want: on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Reddit, on blogs … yes, even on Google+ (and I crack that joke with love). May the best services win our hearts, minds, effort, and attention.

Indeed, what I’d really like to see is a scheme — an open-source data scheme, that is — that would allow users to control their own interest data, how it is shared, and with whom. (I have an idea about how blockchain contracts could enable that; more on that another day.) I could tell just certain sites that I want news about some obscure topic I care about — say, Chromebooks. I could even express an interest in buying one, but I would determine the conditions under which I share that fact. That is, I would tell stores to STFU about Chromebooks after I’ve bought one (unlike those damned retargeting ads that follow us everywhere on the net for weeks on end if we make the mistake of so much as glancing sideways at a laptop on Amazon). This is the essence of what Doc Searls has been advocating with his vision of vendor relationship management (VRM v. CRM), putting users and customers in control.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself seeking a moonshot when we don’t yet know how to climb the stairs. All I want to start is a demonstration of embeddable content and consensual data sharing from one service.

That’s one thing Facebook could do for news.

Now, you might be thinking: But Jeff, didn’t Facebook already try playing host to news content with the Guardian and Washington Post on Social Reader. Didn’t it die?

It did. That’s because users’ friends didn’t like being spammed by their friends and friendly newspapers. And users didn’t necessarily want to automatically share what they were reading vs. recommending. The papers got huge traffic. But the service wasn’t a good experience for users. So it had to die. In its latest incarnation of using interest to better serve news, Facebook is trying to improve the experience for users. That, of course, is job 1.

But wait! There’s more! Call now and we’ll include a business strategy for news! Developers are standing by.

Facebook can also help publishers on their own services, teaching them how to build relationships with and among individuals — which I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts is the key to a new strategy to sustain the news industry around value over volume.

Facebook could offer assistance with the technology and the skills needed to do that.

Most publishers don’t have the basic ability to build user profiles. Facebook could teach us to do that. As I’ll argue in a subsequent post in this series, so could Salesforce.com.

Publishers need to do some Big Thinking about membership, moving past using the word as a synonym for “subscription.” They need to rethink the ways that users can give them value other than just cash (e.g., effort, expertise, content, data, and marketing — aka sharing); and the ways we can reward users with new currencies (besides just giving them access to our perishable content); and the communities to people will join (I’m more likely become a member of a New York Times book club than to consider myself a member of The Times itself). We are going to convene an event about just this topic at CUNY later this year; watch this space. Facebook can inform this discussion.

Facebook can help enable our users to connect in ways other than trolling each other in our comments. It can help us understand the topicality of our own content (surprisingly, we don’t know what our own stories are about in a way that would power meaningful personalization). It can help us build recommendation engines. Facebook could help with these tasks and more — and so could Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Amazon, and other digital giants (the subject of a subsequent post).

But publishers are fools if they think they can bully these behemoths into rescuing them. That, unfortunately, is the tenor of the conversation — no, the war — being waged especially in Europe, armed mainly by publishers with Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, France’s Google blackmail fund, the EU’s antitrust sabre-rattling. Didn’t their mothers ever tell them about honey and flies? Others in my tribe of media wonks think it is time for publishers to stand up against Silicon Valley and build their own technology. But I, the pragmatic optimist, think it would be wiser and more fruitful to find ways to work together. I say that publishers have well proven they are incapable of building their own Facebooks and Googles and Twitters and YouTube and Instagrams.

Publishers must also ask what they can bring to Silicon Valley. Given the current hostility to technology companies in Europe, if publishers there were smart, they’d turn flirty with these tech companies, asking who wants to make friends first. But that works only if there’s something in it for the tech companies. That is why I wrote this post about what news could do for Google. There I argued that rather than spamming Google — and Facebook — with 3,000 versions of the same damned story about the same damned dress, news organizations could get their mutual acts together and label original reporting and actual quality, which would only help Google and Facebook to help them by sending audience and business benefit to original, quality work.

News organizations can also send data to Facebook: data about their content and, with permission, data about users. Many of them already use Facebook signin just as they already use Google search on their sites because they don’t have that functionality and because it is convenient for users. Publishers could, under the right circumstances, enable users to extend their Facebook experiences and Facebook communities on their own services. And that leads me to another idea.

But wait! There’s more! Facebook can also help the little guys and save hyperlocal. Just pay shipping and handling.

Justin Auciello built a small miracle on Facebook called the Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Around hurricane Irene, he brought his neighbors together on Facebook to share what they knew about flooded streets, storm damage, public services, and such. They stuck around to share news and information about their communities all the time. Justin adds considerable journalistic value, helping to report and fact-check information. This local, online community has a remarkable 223,000 members, which would be the envy of any news organization.

Justin brings tremendous benefit to his users, who in turn bring benefit to each other. They all bring benefit to Facebook, causing more engagement, usage, and data (e.g., where users live).

Just one problem: Justin can’t monetize that on Facebook. Last year, on a visit to Facebook, I lobbied Justin’s cause. I said that it’s in Facebook’s interest for Justin to succeed and grow and for there to be many more such communities around local news on Facebook. So I suggested that they should enable Justin to sell local advertisers onto his pages. The merchants would get local, targeted advertising and help with their digital lives (I argue that local blogs should be helping advertisers with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc.). Justin would get revenue. And importantly, Facebook would get access to a huge population of new advertisers that the giant cannot afford to sell on its own. Local sales doesn’t scale. Facebook can enable partners small and large to sell on its behalf if the deal is right. They didn’t kick me out at Facebook for raising this. They said the appropriate product and ad people hadn’t met on the topic. There’s the problem with being a giant. When it comes to helping news, I’ll ask Facebook and Silicon Valley not only to thing big but to think small.

And now a word from our … customers.

As I started writing this post, I went to Facebook, of course, and asked folks what they wanted Facebook to do for news. Snippets:

Cameron Barrett asked for: “More tools to allow for filtering of news feeds against user-chosen topics and political perspectives. A smartly-designed filter that can filter out the “bullshit news”, listicles and click-bait. More search tools that let me find conversations happening on Facebook (or other sites using Facebook commenting) that I want to participate in. And last but not least, a system-wide Kardashian filter I can turn on.” Amen to that.
Emily Bell: “First issue is transparency around how news is sourced and promoted within Facebook. Until we understand those issues properly all else is window dressing for the real issue of control…”
Daniel Horton: “I think the Paper app was an awesome idea, it just had really poor execution. If Facebook could find a way to sort through trending news and present it in a compelling and digestable way (and also sift through the garbage), I know they’d always be my first read for the news of the day.”
Dante Viscarra: Create community based portals of news and engaged more with constituents of these communities because that’s where some of the best news are generated. If you live in one of these communities and have a smart phone you can report some news and as a contributor you get compensated for it. Main steam news is stale and boring. FB already has a tremendous reach, leverage it. News could be news again.”
Dale Klipstein: “FB could leave it alone. They alway mess with my newsfeed and I’m tired of it. I use FB for friends and family, not for the news.”

Well, you can’t win them all.

I can imagine more: How Instagram could become a key platform for delivering visual news. How publishers, especially in developing nations, are looking to use WhatsApp as an alert mechanism for news. How Facebook could help publishers support local and interest communities on Facebook and gain value in return. How publishers could create video intended specificially for inclusion in Facebook news feeds. How journalists can use immersive environments to take users inside news events. What else can you imagine?

Now start over.

When I asked what Google could do for news, I was not nearly so tactical as I have been here. I asked Google to take its best brains and fundamentally reconsider what news could be; to teach us the relationship business; to rethink advertising; to revalue distribution (with ideas such as those above); to investigate new revenue streams; and to invest. I ask the same of Facebook.

In Google’s case, there are three fronts in its struggle with news (publishers): political (the company is playing catchup to publishers and pols in Europe); commercial (a better deal never hurts); and product. In the end, the last one is the only one that matters. If the discussion inside Google isn’t about product — about how quality news does bring real value to Google search, services, and users, about how it can help improve Google and its business — then this will go nowhere. If Google ends up throwing nuts at the pols and pennies at the publishers, Google will end up no better off, users will gain nothing, and the publisher-pols will just return to snipe another day. Now that the European publishers have forced Google to pay attention to news, I believe it is in Google’s interest to develop a high-level strategy regarding news with product at the center. I don’t mean make a news product. I mean looking at how to involve news in the core products. I hope that is happening.

In Facebook’s case, it is evident that product is involved in the discussion of news. That’s why I take hope at the fact that the head of product, Chris Cox, is talking about news, that he understands the value of news to Facebook and its users, and that he is working on new ways to use news. I hope we will also soon see work on new ways to support news — including and starting with ways to share revenue and data.


Next, I want to look at what other Silicon Valley companies — Twitter, Amazon, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Mode/Ning — could do for news. What and who else are on your wishlist?