Sunday’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, titled “Facebook Can Help the News Business.” It’s an outrageous ad masquerading as content — and demonstrates Zuckerberg’s arrogant attitude towards how Facebook has decimated the news business.
Why is the New York Times publishing a product announcement as editorial content?
The purpose of the op-ed section in a newspaper, including the Times’ Sunday Review, is to provide an opportunity for informed writers to share points of view on the news. All op-eds are self-serving; for example, an author may write one about how the content of her book relates to a trend in the news. But there is a limit. If the writer of an op-ed becomes too promotional, the paper’s editors will edit that out or reject the piece.
In this case, Zuckerberg’s op-ed is an announcement about a new Facebook feature: a new tab called “Facebook News,” ostensibly created to help restore the value of journalism. As Zuckerberg writes:
For the first time, there will be a place in the Facebook app dedicated solely to high-quality news. Because people are still better at picking out the most important and highest-quality stories, the top stories in Facebook News will be curated by a team of diverse and seasoned journalists. Below that, there will be a wider selection of stories that are personalized algorithmically. Each story will have clear branding and provenance from the news outlets that published them. Publishers have told us over the years that this is particularly important.
I’ll get to the value of this product in a moment. But this is a product announcement. This paragraph would fit with no edits at all directly in a Facebook press release. Facebook product announcements are certainly news — news organizations should cover them, impartially and with appropriate analysis, in their news sections. Allowing companies to announce their products on the op-ed page subverts the purpose of a newspaper.
My experience with The New York Times tells me that this op-ed was not explicitly conceived to boost the paper. But the effect is the same as if it was. The rise of the internet has lifted The New York Times to become arguably the most important national news outlet, at the top of a tier that includes the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Unlike other local papers such as the LA Times or the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times has thrived on and profited vastly from the traffic directed by Facebook.
It’s difficult not to notice that, with this op-ed, the Times and Facebook are together saying, “This is how we will create the future of news.” It’s fine for Facebook and the business side of the Times to work together; it’s not appropriate at all for Facebook and the Times opinion pages to collude in this way. It’s yet another journalistic failing for the Times’ questionable editorial policies as it struggles to cover Donald Trump.
What’s wrong with Facebook News
Let’s recognize what Facebook has done to news: it has crushed it. In fact, the subtitle of Zuckerberg’s op-ed is “Advertising revenue that used to support journalism now goes to companies like mine. We have a plan to help fix that.”
So the appropriate attitude towards this op-ed is: ok, Zuck, now that you’ve squashed journalism, what will you do about it?”
The simplest solution would be to give Facebook’s advertising revenue on all article clicks to the news organizations that create those articles.
But rather than restore the balance that the open internet created for news, Facebook News attempts to create a curated news area, controlled by Facebook. This is the walled garden model; it’s AOL circa 1995. And Facebook decides who’s in and who’s out. As Zuckerberg writes:
We’ve also built tools to help publishers increase their subscribers by driving people from Facebook links to publisher websites. Publishers are able to decide when a reader sees a paywall. They control the relationship with their readers with subscription payments taking place directly on publishers’ websites. We don’t take any cut of the subscription revenue because we want as much of the revenue as possible to go toward funding quality journalism.
This model establishes a long-term financial partnership between publishers and Facebook for the first time. We know that we need to help build a stable model. Unlike other things we’ve tried in the past, this is a multiyear commitment that should give publishers the confidence to plan ahead. We now have multiyear partnerships with ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, The Dallas Morning News and many more publishers.
Sorry, dude, you don’t get a pat on the head for coming to the publishers you’ve exploited in the past and allowing them to keep all of their own subscription revenues.
As has been widely reported (but not mentioned in this op-ed), Facebook News also includes the alt-right publication Breitbart, which has fabricated stories and promotes a white supremacist, anti-immigrant narrative.
Facebook News is curated by people. So what belongs in it? Accurate and authoritative news sources. And Zuckerberg vows that sources that post falsehoods will be ejected:
Supporting quality news can also help us fight misinformation. That’s why we’re setting strict standards for publishers to be eligible to appear in Facebook News. If a publisher posts misinformation, it will no longer appear in the product.
This raises a few troubling questions:
- If a major publication makes a reporting error, will it be ejected? Recently, the AP reported that Hillary Clinton said the Russians have “got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” Yes, that was Tulsi Gabbard she was referring to. But the AP later corrected itself to say it was “Republicans,” not “Russians” who Clinton was talking about. How many corrections do the AP, the Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal get before they’re kicked out? Conservative commentators citing “mainstream media bias” will certainly be asking.
- How many strikes does Breitbart get? If it publishes disinformation, the pressure to remove it will be intense. But if Facebook does remove it, there will be an alt-right backlash. Is this really the position that Facebook wants to be in: judging news sources? Do we really want to make Facebook the arbiter of what news is news?
- If Facebook has the resources to determine what is true from journalists, why has it explicitly abdicated the responsibility to determine if political ads that it takes are lies? Why are political ads, according to Zuckerberg, a “free speech” issue, while Facebook News curates its content for truth?
These are all questions The New York Times should be asking. But, of course, the Times benefits from its partnership with Facebook. So we get a Facebook advertisement as a Times op-ed. I don’t believe the intent of the Times here was corrupt, but the appearance is questionable as hell.