Between fake news and publishers struggling to keep a loyal connection to their readers, Facebook’s relationship with the journalism business is a bit strained right now. So today Facebook is revealing its roadmap of upcoming news features that it calls “The Facebook Journalism Project” to make its commitment to the industry clear.
These future launches include digest packages of Instant Articles to which users can subscribe, free trials for paid subscriptions, hackathons with publishers’ development teams, additional Facebook tutorials for journalists, PSAs to promote news literacy and combat misunderstanding of fake news and more work to prevent hoaxes from spreading.
Facebook is also now giving away access to CrowdTangle, the journalism tool startup it acquired that helps reporters sift through trends, measure their social posts and identify sources and influencers. Plus, for the first time, journalists who post from their standard user profile will be able to see basic analytics on the videos they share, like a stripped-down version of the Insights tool offered to Facebook Pages.
This initiative could assist publishers with fostering lasting relationships with readers outside of Facebook and avoid getting lost in the feed. Meanwhile, it could help them build new products and open access to tools that aid their teams, while educating the public on how to be good news readers.
“We’ve really heard it loud and clear that [publishers] want a deeper lever of collaboration, not just in partnerships but in product and engineering,” Facebook’s director of product Fidji Simo tells me.
Most importantly, the Facebook Journalism Project could help prevent publishers from being commoditized such that all that matters is the content people consume on Facebook, not who wrote it.
Giving publishers back their mojo
When Facebook launched Instant Articles in May 2015, it heralded a way for publishers to beat slow loading times on mobile where users were increasingly reading news. Instead of waiting up to 10 seconds for an outside website to load, Facebook would host the stories inside its own app in a standardized, “readable” format that would load… instantly.
On a per-unit economic basis, this looked like a big win for publishers. More users wanted to click their stories, and fewer bounced before they loaded. Even if Facebook restricted what could be shown and how many ads could appear in the Instant Articles causing publishers to earn less per view, they were getting enough views to make up for it.
But the hidden, second-order effect was that publishers had their identities sterilized. Instead of people reading on their websites with their custom branding, unique visual style and heavy promotion of their other stories, the Facebook-hosted Instant Articles from different outlets looked largely identical.
This deteriorates the connection between publisher and reader, threatening to turn content creators into merely interchangeable ghostwriters. Over time, it could lead people to just haphazardly read whatever was in their News Feed, rather than seeking out certain publishers, visiting their homepages directly, paying for their subscriptions and attending their events.
Improving news from every angle
That’s why two of the new features bolded below from the full list should be the most exciting for the journalism industry:
- Story packages
- Investing in local news
- Subscription trials
- Facebook + publisher team hackathons
- Facebook journalism training courses for reporters such as how to use Live
- Ability to designate non-admins as contributors who can broadcast Live from a Page
- Bringing the Live video API’s capabilities to user profiles
- Free CrowdTangle access
- Expanded partnership with First Draft Partner Network for finding eyewitnesses
- Public Service Announcements promoting news literacy
- Additional features to fight fake news
While Facebook is staying vague on the exact designs of some of these changes because it’s still hammering out the best way to build them, these two have big potential.
Packages of Instant Articles will allow users to click through a cover story on the News Feed and then choose between several of the outlet’s stories, potentially based around a theme or as a digest of the day’s biggest news. Users can subscribe to be notified when these digests are released. This “packages” feature is currently being tested with The Washington Post, Fox News, El Pais and the Hindustan Times.
Another feature will let Instant Articles publishers include a box where users can sign up for a free trial of their paid subscription. Facebook is testing this with German news organization BILD.
If Facebook provides more ways to create and fund high-quality journalism, its News Feed will remain informative and entertaining despite the difficulties with earning money as a publisher in the modern age. Facebook just hired Campbell Brown as its head of news. Now instead of just promising its publisher partners that Facebook cares about journalism, she’ll have a roadmap of upcoming features to prove it.