Facebook’s tortured relationship with journalism gets a few more tweaks

Facebook has long had a tortured relationship with journalism. When I was reporting for “The Return of the Moguls” in 2015 and ’16, news publishers were embracing Instant Articles, news stories that would load quickly but that would also live on Facebook’s platform rather than the publisher’s.

The Washington Post was so committed to the project that it published every single piece of content as an Instant Article. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief technologist, would talk about the “Facebook barbell,” a strategy that aimed to convert users at the Facebook end of the barbell into paying subscribers at the Post end.

Instant Articles never really went away, but enthusiasm waned — especially when, in 2018, Facebook began downgrading news in its algorithm in favor of posts from family and friends.

Nor was that the first time Facebook pulled a bait-and-switch. Earlier it had something called the Social Reader, inviting news organizations to develop apps that would live within that space. Then, in 2012, it made changes that resulted in a collapse in traffic. Former Post digital editor David Beard told me that’s when he began turning his attention to newsletters, which the Post could control directly rather than having to depend on Mark Zuckerberg’s whims.

Now they’re doing it again. Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review reports that Facebook is experimenting with its news feed to see what the effect would be of showing users less political news as well as the way it measures how users interact with the site. The change, needless to say, comes after years of controversy over Facebook’s role in promoting misinformation and disinformation about politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m sure Zuckerberg would be very happy if Facebook could serve solely as a platform for people to share uplifting personal news and cat photos. It would make his life a lot easier. But I’m also sure that he would be unwilling to see Facebook’s revenues drop even a little in order to make that happen. Remember that story about Facebook tweaking its algorithm to favor reliable news just before the 2020 election — and then changing it back afterwards because they found that users spent less time on the platform? So he keeps trying this and that, hoping to alight up on the magic formula that will make him and his company less hated, and less likely to be hauled before congressional committees, without hurting his bottom line.

One of the latest efforts is his foray into local news. If Facebook can be a solution to the local news crisis, well, what’s not to like? Earlier this year Facebook and Substack announced initiatives to bring local news projects to their platforms for some very, very short money.

Earlier today, Sarah Scire of the Nieman Journalism Lab profiled some of the 25 local journalists who are setting up shop on Bulletin, Facebook’s new newsletter platform. They seem like an idealistic lot, with about half the newsletters being produced by journalists of color. But there are warning signs. Scire writes:

Facebook says it’s providing “licensing fees” to the local journalists as part of a “multi-year commitment” but spokesperson Erin Miller would not specify how much the company is paying the writers or for how long. The company has said it won’t take a cut of subscription revenue “for the length of these partnerships.” But, again, it’s not saying how long those partnerships will last.

How long will Facebook’s commitment to local news last before it goes the way of the Social Reader and Instant Articles? I don’t like playing the cynic, especially about a program that could help community journalists and the audiences they serve. But cynicism about Facebook is the only stance that seems realistic after years of bad behavior and broken promises.

The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

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Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.