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 sale of Politico marks the end of a long duel between the Allbrittons and the Grahams

Katharine Graham believed that Joseph Allbritton hoped to take advantage of the 1975-’76 strike against The Washington Post. Photo by Reading/Simpson, noncommercial use permitted.

Robert Allbritton last week sold Politico to the German media company Axel Springer for $1 billion. Ben Smith, who was part of the launch back in 2007, wrote about the sale earlier this week in The New York Times. I wrote about the two-generation rivalry between the Allbrittons and the Graham family, who controlled The Washington Post until 2013, in “The Return of the Moguls.” Below is an excerpt.

Katharine Graham’s other crucial move was to endure a strike in 1975 in order to get the Post’s printing costs under control. So arcane were the work rules that when an advertiser submitted a finished ad (known in the post-hot-lead, pre-computer age as “camera-ready”), a union compositor still put together an equivalent ad, even though it would be discarded as soon as he was finished with it. In deciding to put a stop to such practices, Graham was fortunate in the viciousness of her opposition. At one demonstration, a leader of the union, Charlie Davis, carried a sign that read “Phil Shot the Wrong Graham,” a reference to Phil Graham’s suicide. On the night that the pressmen went on strike, some of them beat the night foreman and started a fire in an attempt to sabotage the machinery. Because of those actions they earned the enmity of the Newspaper Guild, which represented the reporters. With the paper’s journalists crossing the picket line, the Post was able to resume publishing after just one missed day, enabling them to break the strike. The benefits of being able to modernize production were immediate, as income grew from about $13 million a year to $24.5 million in 1976 and to $35.5 million in 1977.

Not all observers were sympathetic to the Grahams. Ben Bagdikian, a former Post national editor who spent much of his long, distinguished career after leaving the paper as an academic and a harsh critic of corporate journalism, wrote an article in the Washington Monthly attributing the strike to Katharine Graham’s earlier decision to go public. “The idiosyncratic publishers, whose integrity led them to ignore narrow economic arguments in favor of quality, and who as a result created America’s great newspapers, are disappearing,” Bagdikian wrote. “They were being replaced by profit-maximizing conglomerate owners. It is a forecast of trouble for independent journalism in the country’s most important news companies.” Graham recorded her response in a note to Ben Bradlee: “I am really embarrassed to think this ignorant biased fool was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”

The Post’s rivalry with The Washington Star played a small role in the strike as well, a tidbit of interest mainly because of who owned the Star at that time: Joe Allbritton, a Texan who had acquired the paper from the Kauffmann family in 1974. Katharine Graham wrote that Allbritton declined to help the Post during the strike because, in her view, the only way the Star could stay in business was for the Post to fail. Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. in 1978, which closed it in 1981 even though Katharine Graham, Donald Graham and Warren Buffett had made overtures to set up a joint operating agreement under which both papers would be published.

The Allbritton family’s ambitions remained entangled with the Post for many decades to come. Years later, two Post journalists, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, were rebuffed when they proposed setting up a separate political website under the paper’s umbrella. They took their idea to Joe Allbritton’s son, Robert, who helped them launch Politico in 2007. With its hyperkinetic insider’s approach to covering politics, the site quickly established itself as a serious rival to the Post on one of its signature beats, although Politico was often criticized for emphasizing the superficial horse race aspects of politics.

Robert Allbritton also backed a site cheekily named TBD.com (for “to be determined”), edited by the former washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady and the future Post media blogger Erik Wemple, which covered local news in the Washington area in conjunction with a television station the Allbrittons had owned since acquiring the Star. Fortunately for the Grahams, Allbritton lost patience with it within months of its 2010 launch, and in 2012 the site was shut down. Another Allbritton connection: About a year after Jeff Bezos bought the Post, he hired Frederick Ryan, a former Reagan administration official, to replace Katharine Weymouth as publisher. At the time that the move was made, Ryan was president and chief operating officer of Allbritton Communications and had served as Politico’s first chief executive.

The Post and Politico make for a fascinating contrast. Both companies are ensconced in brand-new headquarters on either side of the Potomac; Politico occupies part of an office tower in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia. The missions of the two organizations are very different. The Post is a general-interest newspaper with a substantial print presence. Politico is aimed at people in the professional political community, and though it publishes a small print product (daily when Congress is in session; weekly otherwise), it’s mainly digital. Yet if the ancient rivalry between the Post and The New York Times is mostly journalistic and symbolic, the Post’s rivalry with the Allbritton family has involved serious competition over whose news organization will prove to be more financially successful in the long run.

Correction: I have learned that the elder Albritton’s legal name was Joe, not Joseph. Unfortunately, it remains wrong in the book.

In Washington State, an evening newspaper rises from the dustbin of history


If the morning daily newspaper is an endangered species, then the evening paper shuffled off to extinction many years ago. Now Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is bringing it back.

Not really, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first a little background.

Evening papers were dominant back when factory work was the way that tens of millions of Americans made their living. You’d work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., come home and read the evening paper. Later, as we shifted to more of a white-collar, 9-to-5 culture, morning papers became the primary distribution vehicle for newspaper journalism. Evening papers faded away, and eventually few, if any, remained. The Boston Evening Globe, for instance, stopped publishing in 1979.

Today, of course, the news cycle is entirely different, with stories posted online around the clock, sometimes not to show up in print until days later — if ever.

Some of us, though, continue to like the day’s paper, whether online or in print. The daily paper represents a curated news report — the considered judgment of the editors as to what the day’s most important news is. Again, to use the Globe as an example, you can access a list of the stories in that day’s print edition (unfortunately, it seems that stuff always gets left out) or read the paper in the form of an e-edition — a PDF of that day’s paper that looks like the print edition. The Globe offers two versions, both so-so.

What The Spokesman-Review has done is revive its old evening paper, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, in the form of an e-edition that’s posted each afternoon. As reported by Kristen Hare of Poynter Online, the idea isn’t to compete with The Spokesman-Review, as it did back before the Chronicle folded in 1992 (even under common ownership); rather, it’s to boost the bottom line and give people who live in the Spokane area another reason to buy a digital subscription or keep the one they’ve already got.

“Our view is the e-edition is the gateway drug to our web presence for traditional readers,” publisher Stacey Cowles told Hare. “If they love it enough, it could help solve our huge manufacturing and distribution cost headache. But additional online pages have to be meaningful to make a difference. More stock listings don’t cut it.”

Added editor Rob Curley: “We were realists on this. It wasn’t about how are we going to make this a bigger pie, it was how are we going to hang on to the pie that we have when we know we’re going to continue to push subscription prices?”

If all this sounds retro, keep in mind that Curley is a pioneer in digital journalism, first at the Naples Daily News in Florida and, in the pre-Jeff Bezos age, at The Washington Post, where he presided over the launch of a digital-only local-news site in Loudoun County, Maryland. I met him in 2015 when I was researching my book “The Return of the Moguls” and Curley was editor of California’s Orange County Register under the ill-fated ownership of Aaron Kushner.

Print and print-like products continue to play an important part in keeping newspapers alive — as in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where The Berkshire Eagle is actually buying a used printing press in order to boost is color capacity. Someday, newspapers may drop their print editions entirely, or go weekend-only. Until that day comes, though, it makes sense to serve the print-oriented readers who pay the bills.

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How alt-weeklies are surviving pandemic and recession

In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.

VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:

When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.

So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:

The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.

Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.

Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.

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Marty Baron, Walter Lippmann and the true meaning of objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905. Photo in the public domain.

Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:

Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?

Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.

Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.

I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:

I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.

The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.

The entire interview is well worth your time.

The Washington Post’s top editor, Marty Baron, will retire next month

Marty Baron, right, in conversation with Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

Republished at GBH News.

Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.

Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.

I interviewed Baron several times over the years, including in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Here is an excerpt about Baron’s reaction when he learned in August 2013 that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Post:

“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling the Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us”—a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior. “I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”

Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.

And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.

Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

***

As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

***

Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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In Vermont, the rise of an alternative media ecosystem

The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont. Photo via Pixabay.

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The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today takes a look at two independent Vermont news organizations that have expanded to fill the gap created by the hollowing out of Gannett’s daily Burlington Free Press. (I’m quoted.)

It’s a topic of particular interest to me because I included a section on the media ecosystem in and around Burlington in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” Though most of the book is about the rise of a new class of wealthy newspaper owners, I thought what was happening in Vermont was worth including.

Shanahan writes about the for-profit alt-weekly Seven Days and the investigative nonprofit VT Digger, both of which are doing great work. To those I would add a third — Vermont Public Radio, which has expanded its local coverage in recent years.

During my reporting trip to Vermont in late 2015, I got to meet the folks in charge of Seven Days and VT Digger, and connected with a former student who was then working for VPR. I also visited the Free Press newsroom. The impression I came away with was that the Free Press was trying to manage decline, whereas the alternatives were mission-driven and growing.

It’s phenomenon I’ve seen before, and it’s why I’m guardedly optimistic about the future of local news. My 2013 book, “The Wired City,” is primarily about the nonprofit New Haven Independent. Launched in 2005 and still going strong, the Independent provides paper-of-record coverage of New Haven in the shadow of the New Haven Register, the corporate-owned daily. (Now owned by Hearst, which has done a better job with its papers than most chains.)

Along with my research partner, retired Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, I’m currently working on a book that will tell stories from across the country about entrepreneurial journalists who are rising up to compete with failing legacy newspapers. Our work was disrupted by the COVID pandemic, but we plan to get back to it later this spring.

As I have argued for years, the greed of corporate chain ownership is at least as damaging to the health of local journalism as the technology-driven decline of advertising.

Warren Buffett still thinks newspapers are doomed

Warren Buffett in a 2010 White House photo

The self-made billionaire Warren Buffett has been a disappointment ever since he started buying newspapers. According to Bloomberg News, he believes that all except a few national papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are doomed — echoing remarks he’s been making for several years. Here’s what I wrote about Buffett in “The Return of the Moguls”:

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of [Jeff] Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-eighties to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and [John] Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

Buffett isn’t the worst newspaper owner out there by any means. But as someone who has taken a great interest in newspapers over the years (among other things, he was a close adviser to former Post publisher Katharine Graham), it seems to me that he could have done more.

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Jeff Bezos just made good on an unusual promise about body parts and wringers

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:

In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.

The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.

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