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In many ways, Facebook has always had an on-again, off-again relationship with top publishers. Every few months, it seems, CEO Mark Zuckerberg welcomes media companies to the Facebook social media platform with open arms and proclaims that he is finding new ways for them to pick up views, clicks and subscribers. And, then, just as quickly, he’s pulling the rug out from under them, and moving on to a completely new approach. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Facebook is at it again, this time with a new feature called “Facebook News.”
News, but not the newsfeed
The basic premise of Facebook News, which will live directly within the Facebook mobile app, is that users of the social network still want access to news, even if they don’t particularly want it in their newsfeeds. So Facebook has partnered with a number of trusted media publishers (such as NPR) to deliver just that. According to an update from the Facebook Newsroom, the new feature is only now being rolled out after a long, consultative period in which Facebook reached out to publishers and asked them how they’d like their stories presented, and how users are actually consuming news these days.
Key features of Facebook News
For now, Facebook News is still in beta testing with a subset of mobile app users. but Facebook has already announced a few of the key features of Facebook News. One of the most interesting features will be “Today’s Stories,” which is essentially a curated list of stories from a small team of journalists within Facebook. As Facebook notes, humans are still better than algorithms at recognizing good news stories, so it was important to have a team of journalists in-house who could make good judgment decisions. The emphasis, says Facebook, will be on stories that are “deeply reported” and “well-sourced.”
In addition, Facebook News will make use of extensive personalization features, so that users are always shown fresh, interesting news items that tie into their interests and likes. Presumably, someone who wants to see a lot of “sports” news stories won’t be forced to slog through a lot of “politics” news stories (and vice versa). According to Facebook, the emphasis will be on highlighting the most relevant national news stories of the day, but there will also be plenty of room for local news as well.
How new is News?
While it’s clear that something new is going on here, has anything really changed at Facebook? Doesn’t it seem like some version of Facebook News has already been tried? Moving around a few tabs, or hiring a few journalists (instead of relying on AI-powered algorithms) doesn’t change the fact that media publishers are still getting the short end of the stick here. Facebook wants its users to remain within the Facebook experience when consuming news, and not venturing off to other websites, where they might never return. And Facebook News will probably come with its own form of subscription, such that people “subscribe” to Facebook and not to the New York Times or Washington Post.
In fact, you can almost bet that as soon as the algorithms get smart enough, Facebook will slowly let go of its (human) journalists. Based on what’s already happened at Facebook, it’s easy to assume that these new journalists are just there to “train” the machines, and that Mark Zuckerberg will once again cut the relationship short as soon as he’s figured out a new way to divert some of the media’s few remaining revenue streams over to Facebook.