Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sat down with Matthias Döpfner – CEO of Axel Springer – for a discussion about the roles of Facebook and journalism in a bustling digital media industry. During their conversation, which took place in Berlin and was broadcast to the world via Facebook, Zuckerberg revealed that he was considering launching a dedicated tab within Facebook for news, which would feature “high-quality, trustworthy content”. It could potentially be introduced before the end of 2019.

Zuckerberg estimates that 10-20% of Facebook’s audience would be interested in this new section. It will be free for all users, though Facebook may pay publishers whose work is featured in an effort to encourage responsible reporting. Currently, it’s not clear if Facebook would personally pay publishers or monetize this through an ad revenue share.

Perhaps this idea is evidence that Zuckerberg will aim to remain true to the promises made in his recent essay regarding Facebook’s substantial privacy and transparency issues. Perhaps it’s a savvy play engineered to ensure Facebook can continue to compete with Google and Apple on the news front. Don’t forget, Facebook has recently been confronted with new European Union copyright rules that will require it to “compensate publishers and creators for the content that appears on their websites”. These plans could have come from a place of necessity, as opposed to genuine desire for an overhaul of practice.

Facebook may hire editors to operate the news tab, but Zuckerberg told Döpfner that currently it’s unclear to what extent the content of the tab will be chosen by users or curated by editors. We do know that Facebook had to adapt its editorial strategy with trending news after being accused of intentionally stifling conservative voices. Facebook was even found by the Guardian to have given its editorial staff the ability to add or remove content from the trending bar, at their discretion. But, Zuckerberg went on to clarify: “We’re not going to have journalists making news. What we want to do is make sure that this is a product that can get people high-quality news.” All the same, Zuckerberg added: “I want to make sure that to the extent that we can that we’re funding as much high quality journalism as possible.” Döpfner replied, saying: “I’ve always been totally convinced that quality journalism in the digital world can only exist if there is also an element of paying readers.”

Mark Zuckerberg and Matthias Döpfner discuss Facebook's news tab

It appeared that Zuckerberg wasn’t too proud to take a dig at some competition, either, claiming: “We’re coming to this from a very different perspective than some of the other players in the space who view news as a way that they want to maximise their revenue” – possibly a reference to Apple News+, Apple’s recently unveiled ‘Netflix for news’ which came under fire when it was reported that it will take 50% of revenue from the service.

Another area Zuckerberg was keen to discuss was local news. Facebook’s late-2017 introduction of their ‘meaningful interactions’ algorithm saw the platform begin prioritising posts from friends and families of users. This meant that only news with the most emotionally stirring, click-driven headlines broke through to news feeds. It’s highly unusual for local stories to carry the weight of scoops on a national or international level. Facebook seems to be working to undo some damage the algorithm change brought with it; proof that the promises Zuckerberg makes in his essay on privacy may hold true? Furthermore, Zuckerberg expressed a desire to make small payments to third-party fact checkers and local news organisations.

Our take

Before Facebook changed its News Feed algorithm to prioritise ‘meaningful interactions’, the idea of users clicking to a tab to view news would have had us up in arms. Surely, to have to navigate to a separate tab is to massively compromise content impressions? Well, it depends. The user intent of a reader would potentially change, which could exchange large click volumes for fewer users – but potentially users of a higher value.

If this was the case, then hypothetically, Facebook could pay publishers according to dwell time, the same way Apple News+ does. This could make for an interesting steer away from low quality snackable content driven by clickbait headlines. For some publishers this would be great news, for others it could mean the introduction of controversial practice; articles stuffed with assets that aim to keep users stuck on a page, for instance.

We’ll keep a close eye on best practice for the model if it rolls out. To be on Facebook’s news payroll could be an invaluable asset for publishers of all sizes and in all areas.

Wish to stay up to date on these developments? Join the Mathematics newsletter.