Reading the News From Inside Facebook

From "al the news fit to print" to the news that Facebook thinks you should read. 

March 24, 2015

So, Facebook would like to strike deals with news organizations like The New York Times and Buzzfeed to host their content within the enclosed world of Facebook. The articles will load a few seconds faster, and apparently those seconds are money. Though the details of the deals are not public, it seems the news organizations will split some sort of revenue from this arrangement (earned mysteriously from those ads which we have grown so good at ignoring) and Facebook will have exclusive spying rights. At the moment, if you visit The New York Times, they get to record your reading history and serve you targeted ads. (I found four ads and 12 trackers on that page I just linked to.*) On Facebook you’ll be reading those news stories inside a giant tracking machine, and I assume Facebook’s algorithms will take over the news editor role, deciding what stories you should see. Given that Mark Zuckerberg famously said a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to you than people dying in Africa, imagine how that will work out.

To some extent this reminds me of the kerfuffle around Google News. You don’t hear a lot about Google News these days, but it was poised to destroy the news media as we knew it because it algorithmically aggregated news sources and scooped up ad revenue for themselves. A Belgian news chain sued Google, calling their presentation of headlined and ledes a copyright violation. Google obligingly removed them from the site. How's that obscurity working out for you? Eventually, that news content was restored after some money changed hands. (The article I linked from Le Monde has 23 ads and 16 trackers.) For what it’s worth, I just compared the top stories on Google News while logged into Google, when not logged in, and when using the Tor browser which doesn't know anything about me, and the U.S. headlines were all pretty much the same. It didn’t look as if it was being curated according to Google’s idea of my interests – though, of course, its general search results are tailored to what Google knows about me. I’m trying to train myself to use Start Page instead.

One difference between Google News and this new arrangement is that Facebook has a pretty heavy editorial hand. You don’t see all of what your friends post; you only see what Facebook thinks you should see (though if you pay Facebook it will look the other way and unhook the velvet rope so your postings get through). If I were a news editor, I probably wouldn’t be too happy to have Facebook reorganize the day’s news according to its own idea of what’s important to the individuals it surveilles. It’s one thing for people to decide what to share with their friends and another for a social media empire to make those decisions itself.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure what difference it will make. Facebook likes to keep people on their site through manipulation of timelines - kind of the way Disney makes your visit to Disney World more pleasant by tracking all of your movements - but people do leave and roam around the web freely. Of course, unless they are careful, Facebook follows them and adds all of their webpage visits to its dossiers about them. It also tracks Facebook refuseniks like me when we happen to visit a page that has a button for sharing content to Facebook. Facebook just can't get enough of us.

According to last year’s State of the News Media report, advertising accounted for over two-thirds of news organizations’ revenue. For daily newspapers, it’s three-fourths of their revenue. Overall, ad revenue is shrinking, which is why so many newspapers have erected paywalls in the past year or two to make up the difference through increasing subscribers. It’s also notable that there are fewer journalists in traditional newsrooms (a mere 6.7 percent drop in 2012, which is a big improvement over the precipitous decline between 2006 and 2009), but there have been thousands of new jobs created for journalists in digital-only outlets such as Vox, Buzzfeed, and Quartz, and they have been hiring foreign editors as traditional newspapers shed their overseas bureaus. 

I follow the news about news because, like libraries, a healthy free press is important to democracy. There should be a 2015 State of the News Media report out any day now – it will be interesting to see what it says. Meanwhile, if you want the latest, Jim Romenesko (five ads, 11 trackers) can keep you informed.  Or for a snarky take, you could see how Quartz (two ads, seven trackers) imagines the next developments for the Times.

*I get these numbers from two browser plugins, Adblock Plus and Ghostery. If you're curious about Inside Higher Ed, I count two ads and five trackers. 


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