Photo Credit: wikipedia
After nearly two months of non-stop complaints about #fakenews, Facebook has finally done something about it. On January 11, the largest social network in the world launched The Facebook Journalism Project. There’s a lot included as part of this project, including new products for trusted news organizations and a lot of training and tools for journalists.
The goals of the Facebook Journalism Project
Taking a big picture view, the project is intended as a way to create “a healthy news ecosystem” for journalists and news organizations. That means deeper relationships with news organizations, better training for journalists, and access to new Facebook tools for telling better stories.
The idea is that it will now be easier to create high-quality, engaging content for Facebook news feeds. Moreover, it will be easier to spot #fakenews, whenever it appears in a news feed.
The online publishing model is broken
That’s totally admirable and really commendable of Facebook. However, there’s just one problem: the news is fundamentally broken because news organizations themselves are fundamentally broken. The whole online publishing model, in fact, is broken.
For any online publishing model, the basic business model is the following: get as many readers as possible and sell advertising against those readers. If you’re lucky, get people to pay for subscriptions. On the web, the way you get as many readers as possible is by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Which is what gave us fake news.
At the beginning of the year, Ev Williams, CEO of Medium (and formerly of Twitter and Blogger fame) wrote a very raw and honest post about the state of online publishing. As he pointed out, no matter how big Medium ever became, it just couldn’t scale big enough to be a commercial success. Right now, Google and Facebook have a near duopoly on digital advertising. So he was planning to lay off one-third of his employees and start over from scratch with a new business model. What he wanted, he said, was a business model that would actually reward content that improved the world.
That may sound idealistic, but it’s also a lot more realistic than assuming that a serious, mainstream media organization has any chance against the likes of a Buzzfeed, which will publish just about anything if it means more clicks. Buzzfeed passed the New York Times long ago in terms of readers. Let’s face it – we’ve become a world in which getting people to “click” and “like” content is the end goal, not actually educating and informing them.
Just how innovative are Facebook’s changes?
Thus, many of the innovations that Facebook is proposing sound a bit flat. (It’s easy to “fix the system” when the digital advertising system is so obviously tilted in its favor.) One “innovation,” for example, will be the ability for publishers using Instant Articles to package together several stories together at the same time and deliver them to readers. Woo-hoo! Another “innovation” is the ability for media brands to include a subscription offer with their Instant Articles. (It’s hard to think of anything worse than clicking on an article and immediately getting a solicitation to subscribe to that site!)
So, yes, maybe the news ecosystem does need some cleaning up. And, yes, it is helpful that Facebook is making some new tools and training available to news organizations. But that doesn’t get at the core problem of the whole #fakenews problem – the way you make money these days in media is getting clicks and likes, and the easiest way to do that is with fluffy, sensational pieces that may or may not be real.