Op-Ed

How Facebook is becoming the Wal-Mart for news

Media firms may change the kind of news they produce to get more revenue out of their Facebook relationship

As reported in the New York Times, Facebook may start directly hosting the content of various news websites, starting with the New York Times, BuzzFeed and National Geographic. What this means for Internet users is that instead of seeing a summary of an article on Facebook, clicking, reading it on the publisher's website, then coming back to Facebook to discuss the article, you'll just read the whole thing right on Facebook — which will share the advertising revenue it generates from managing the publishers' articles. What this means in the larger sense is that the Internet will become more centralized.

In the early days of the Internet, websites were individual islands of words and images, connected via hypertext links. Anyone who wanted to could set up a website and start publishing. Publishers managed their own content and websites, sold advertising space to advertisers, and subscriptions to subscribers. Readers consumed content by navigating directly to the home pages of their favorite sites, probably by typing out URLs.

Now, although it’s still possible to set up a website and start publishing, there’s little money in that. Readers are abandoning home pages; they decide what they want to read by seeing what their friends have recommended on Twitter or Facebook. Huge social networks get the traffic, and advertisers follow.

Social media hasn’t been all bad for publishers. On the contrary, there’s a natural dependency between these platforms and the news media because the former have traffic and the latter have content — that is, a large audience and something for that audience to discuss. Social media platforms can reach hundreds of millions of people, very quickly, and news travels organically, from friend to friend.

And this is how we come to the current state of change. Facebook, with its 1.4 billion users, represents growth to publishers. Media companies are in a bind. They can either build their own platforms, which requires acquiring Silicon Valley-quality engineering and product talent, then coming up with product ideas — ideas that can yield 10 or 100 times the audience growth — or they can partner with giant companies that already manage huge global audiences.

The idea that the people who create our news content will be working, at least partially, within the strictures of Facebook is unsettling. Facebook is a software company. Its most valuable employees are not editors but product managers who manage software that in turn manages massive databases of human relationships. And because some news is going to perform better on Facebook than other news, media companies may change the kind of news they produce in order to get more revenue out of their Facebook relationship. That doesn't mean viral lists will wholly replace investigative journalism, necessarily, just that if cute pandas pay the bills, reporters will work those cute pandas.

But these sorts of relationships have always existed in publishing between publishers, advertisers, syndication partners, newsstands and, ultimately, readers. History shows that influence over news can be very dynamic and very subtle.

What’s novel is that, in Facebook, there is this one truly massive entity several orders of magnitude larger than any other large media company. It’s a little like when the Bell System owned all of our phones and lines, and to communicate in America you needed to lease a landline from the phone company. It’s also a little like the Apple App Store, where the cost of getting your software onto an iPhone or iPad is going through an Apple approval process and kicking a percentage back to Apple. And this Facebook deal with publishers might also be a little like when Wal-Mart began its massive expansion and began to squeeze its suppliers for every penny. The upside was that Bentonville, Ark., got an airport, China got a lot of manufacturing contracts and Americans got a lot of cheap sneakers and plastic jugs of sweetened tea. The downside was felt by Wal-Mart employees — who are badly paid — and local businesses.

When you decide to read your content on Facebook instead of on the publisher’s website, when you decide to look for a free content option instead of subscribing, you’re making the same kind of choice that people make when they go to Wal-Mart to buy the cheapest possible TV. This is not to say that you are a bad person — I use Facebook and I happily shop at big-box stores like Wal-Mart — just that you are, actually, making a choice.

Unless everyone decides to start paying for news again, or advertisers decide that a Web reader on a newspaper’s website is as valuable as a print reader, Facebook is going to be a newspaper for millions of people. That’s just the reality. The best we can hope for is more transparency — more information about how stories find their way to us, the readers. This would be valuable not simply because the news is, ultimately, a public trust as well as a commercial product, but because Facebook is one too.

Paul Ford is a writer and technologist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is writing a book of essays about web pages.

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