Facebook's approach to news is getting ever more elitist - and controlling

Facebook is about to start pumping millions into news publishers to create Facebook Watch as a viable video channel. That's really uncomfortable timing…

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

One of the weirdest aspects of the digital world is that pretty much every tech company is turning into a TV company. Google owns YouTube which makes YouTube Red. Amazon has Prime Video. Apple is pulling together a TV offering. And Twitter is a video company.

Rather than democratising media, we’re seeing a new consolidation of visual content, but into the hands of a small number of tech players, whose core business is anything but media. This is weirdly like the sinister mega-corporations of 1980s cyberpunk fiction coming into being, but from a direction none of us expected.

And now Facebook, that most trusted of tech giants, wants in - and it’s paying a lot of money to do so:

Facebook has committed to fund news programming for Watch for a year. Generally speaking, the company is proposing budgets that range from $5 million to $10 million annually for daily news programming; for weekly shows, Facebook is willing to pay around $1 million to $2 million, though those budgets are largely based on costs per episode rather than an annual fee, according to two news publishing execs who have been briefed by Facebook.

Two things here:

  1. This is horribly reminiscent of the disastrous way Facebook threw money at publishers to create Live video -– something that is fading down to the niche use case it should always have been. Nobody with any sense should be signing up for this repeat offence. Again and again Facebook offers special incentives, from Facebook Social Readers to Instant Articles, from Facebook Live to Facebook Watch, and every time either the cash or the traffic flow suddenly gets cut off.
  2. Facebook’s media strategy has clearly been remade in the image of its head of news partnerships: Campbell Brown.

Brown knows what’s right for Facebook

Campbell Brown joined Facebook last year, after a career in politics, and a short stint in right-wing education reform campaigning. We have a TV-centric figure driving a TV-centric approach to news on the Facebook platform.

It’s worth noting that as recently as four years ago, the newly-appointed Head of News Partnerships was Liz Heron, late of the Wall Street Journal. That shift from a newspaper-led organisation to a TV-led organisation is manifested in strategy. Even as Facebook pushes print-derived media out of the feed, it’s bringing TV media into the platform.

I think every publishers should be worried about this, even video-centric ones. Lifestyle brand Insider has been desperately shifting its strategy to match Facebook’s shift, with less than stellar results:

Since Facebook  deprioritized publisher content in its news feed in January , Insider cut its Facebook news feed video output in half, in a shift to produce longer videos. (The company didn’t give raw numbers.) As a result, its average monthly engagement on the platform fell by more than 70 percent, per Shareablee.

Facebook, arbiter of the elite

So, who is going to do well out of Facebook Watch? I think we can get a pretty good picture by looking at the approach of Brown to her role. There are some worrying details in a recent NYT profile of Campbell Brown, that suggest we’re dealing with an elitist with a string sense of her own power. This is how one of her networking bashes is described:

The gatherings are frequently a who’s who of the news media, mixing long-established outlets with digitally focused newcomers. The guest lists have included Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor in chief; David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker; Nick Thompson, the editor of Wired; and the Vox publisher Melissa Bell. One editor, who asked not to be identified because these gatherings are off the record, said he felt “humiliated” afterward, having been reminded that the power of traditional publishers is waning.

And her response to those who criticise the changes in Facebook’s approach to publisher content is telling, too:

At one recent meeting, two publishers complained about having lost a lot of online traffic after changes to Facebook’s News Feed. According to one publisher who was present, Ms. Brown told them the company would give them more traffic if they stopped doing clickbait.

That response carries both more than a little disdain - and a rather naively idealistic view of what the newsfeed is actually rewarding.

Facebook is consolidating its power over news

It’s very clear that in elevating an ex-TV anchor and political networker extraordinaire that Facebook has given up any pretence of an equal playing field for the various levels of media. If you're not big with big money behind you, Facebook isn't interested - and this is reflected in the concerns and private discussions of those who work in audience engagement. Instead, the social media giant is flattering the vanity and aiding the reach of the really big players - those who are important enough to be invited to Campbell Brown’s soirées.

A few years ago, Liz Heron came and spoke at news:rewired, and I was able to chat to her for a while afterwards. It’s hard to imagine Campbell Brown doing that, isn’t it?

In a little over 10 years, Facebook has gone from an upstart web player to kingmaker and tastemaker in digital news. And every signal we’re getting right now is that their playbook is traditionalist, elitist and monied. Facebook is becoming an engine for the consolidation of power, not the spreading of it.

Even worse that that, by essentially buying the content that will drive its video operations, it will have an unprecedented level of control over its news "partners". I'm sure many journalists feel queasy about an organisation which has suffered as much justified criticism and investigation as Facebook suddenly pumping millions into those same news outlets who have been holding it to account.

Given how easily Facebook can be manipulated by dedicated malicious actors, that should concern all of us.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.