By Jed Williams • Chief Strategy Officer, Local Media Association
The official launch of the Facebook News tab – at a private event Oct. 25 in New York that I attended on behalf of LMA – produced a litany of headlines and a groundswell of speculation about how the new “surface” will work, and the implications for participating publishers. Such speculation might be expected anytime a platform of Facebook’s gravitas makes an announcement of this potential magnitude, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself serving as the mouthpiece.
Direct, guaranteed multi-year payments for existing, premium content for at least some (not all) participating publishers — it could indeed mark a noteworthy departure from Facebook’s prior content licensing and subsidy agreements. For now, it’s wait, see and learn as the test rolls out in fourth quarter and expands early in 2020.
While most of the reporting, analyzing, commenting, and speculating has hovered at a national level – natural considering that the vast majority of the participating publishers (paid and free) are national brands (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and the like) – what can be made of the local angle? How should metro and community newspapers, broadcasters, and other publications interpret the news as it pertains to their operations, and opportunity? Here, let’s unpack what we know so far, what it could mean, and what may lie ahead.
- First and foremost, selected local media in specific, large markets are participating in the Facebook News test, and many are being paid to provide content. This wasn’t a given when initial discussions of the News surface commenced, so local’s inclusion at all at this early stage is important to begin assessing the experience, benefits, and impact. These are largely in top 10 markets, with larger-scale local news providers. Their terms for participation may vary by market and company, though the several-hundreds-of-thousands-per-year range has been generally cited.
- Getting more local publishers involved, as quickly and seamlessly as possible, is an imperative for Facebook. How fast that happens, and what the curated local experience looks like, is still largely TBD. For now, the participating large-market media will see their content pulled into the News tab and integrated into the user stream via a combination of human curation (via an independent team) and algorithmic selection. In time, the Today In experience, which Facebook launched a few years ago and has since expanded to thousands of markets, will be stitched into News to bring collected local content, events, community announcements and more into the stream. With Today In being an existing surface, this may well be the fastest path to a first level of local content integration that includes the mid and long-tail publisher ecosystem.
Zuckerberg directly addressed the local imperative at Friday’s event: “It’s easier to work on partnerships with the top 200 publishers. But figuring out how to work with lots of local ones is going to be critical.” He continued, “In a lot of ways, local papers have probably been hit the hardest. And local is some of the most important content for holding our democracy together. I don’t think we as one company are going to be able to solve this issue. Hopefully these conversations advance a model that can be more broadly replicated across the industry.”
- On top of the premium-payments lightning rod is the paywall conversation for those publishers – many of whom are local – who seek to monetize consumer relationships directly. Zuckerberg acknowledged as much when discussing how Facebook’s pay-for-content economics can jibe with publishers existing paid access models. “We’ve had to structure specific relationships for the News tab so that some of the content can be visible beyond the paywall.” So, what exactly does that mean? Especially if the presentation of the content is evidently going to be headlines and abstracts that link to publishers’ own sites. This may mean slightly expanded, or adjusted, access to typically-restricted paid content, although Facebook has asserted that existing paywall policies will be respected. A key area to watch, certainly, in understanding the full value exchange between platform and publisher.
At LMA, we will continue to work closely with Facebook, participating publishers, and prospective entrants to fully understand the user experience, evaluate all key considerations, and assess the related audience and revenue value propositions.