6 questions raised by Facebook's reported deal with publishers
If Facebook is able to persuade media organizations to go along with its newest idea, it will be, no kidding, a game-changer.
The New York Times reported last night that Facebook is talking with the Times, National Geographic, BuzzFeed and others about a plan that would have the news organizations hosting their mobile content on Facebook rather than linking back to their own sites.
When I teach newsrooms how to smartly use Facebook, I tell them that it is vital that most posts push the reader back “to the mothership.” By that I mean get the reader onto the newsroom’s website. The reasons are simple: That’s where the ads are, that's where the metrics are and that's where the other content that publishers want people to read, watch and listen to is posted. The plan, as spelled out in the Times’ article, would be to place the content somehow on Facebook on the condition that the social network shares revenue with the news organizations that provide it.
Think about all of the issues that would raise. These are the first that come to my mind:
- If the content news outlets generate is posted on a free social media site, how would this affect organizations that are increasingly turning to subscription models?
- How would such an agreement affect who holds the copyright to the information? If Facebook publishes an entire copyrighted work, wouldn’t the originator have to sign over some rights to use the entire work? Likewise, how would corrections or changes to the original copy be addressed?
- What about defamation and libel? Would Facebook be willing to expose itself to libel and defamation claims if a story proved to be untrue and defamatory? Wouldn’t litigants love to go after such a big target rather than a little website or news organization with limited capital?
- Would Facebook archive everything it posts?
- How would this affect referent traffic, the traffic that news sites get when readers bounce from the story that brought them to the site to other things they see on the page?
- What data might Facebook collect about the readers that consume the news content? What could they do with that?
As the Times article points out, Facebook is so large that publishers may have little choice but to cooperate or potentially lose a major source of traffic:
And if Facebook pushes beyond the experimental stage and makes content hosted on the site commonplace, those who do not participate in the program could lose substantial traffic — a factor that has played into the thinking of some publishers. Their articles might load more slowly than their competitors’, and over time readers might avoid those sites.
And just as Facebook has changed its news feed to automatically play videos hosted directly on the site, giving them an advantage compared with videos hosted on YouTube, it could change the feed to give priority to articles hosted directly on its site.
The sobering news may not be surprising to those who have been paying attention. Last fall Facebook launched a “Listening Tour” for publishers. In October, former New York Times columnist David Carr sent a signal of the story that unfolded today. He wrote this passage:
Chris Cox, chief product officer for Facebook, knows that the frightened chatter is out there, but says those worries are unfounded because the interests of Facebook and digital publishers are pretty much aligned.
We are at the very beginning of a conversation and it’s very important that we get this right,” he said in a video call. “Because we play an increasingly important role in how people discover the news that they read every day, we feel a responsibility to work with publishers to come up with as good an experience as we can for consumers. And we want and need that to be a good experience for publishers as well.”
Fortune.com also reminds us that the past may teach us lessons worth recalling. There was a time when AOL was a key distributor of news. Then came Yahoo, then Google News. Now Facebook. Desperate publishers have a lot to lose when they give up content too quickly and they have a lot to lose if they get left in the dust.