Facebook really, really wants to work with journalists

The social network has launched a multi-pronged initiative in response to criticism of its news role

In recent months, a lot of ink was spilled to criticize Facebook’s role in the dissemination of news, especially related to the past U.S. presidential election. On Wednesday, the company announced a new suite of initiatives aimed at improving its collaboration with journalists and media companies.

The Facebook Journalism Project is based on three core initiatives. First, the company is developing new features to help publishers better use its platform for publishing and promoting their stories and businesses. 

Second, Facebook is working on new tools to help journalists use the social network for their reporting along with training to help them better use Facebook. Third, the firm is working to curb the spread of fake information and better educate its users about what stories they can trust.

Facebook’s moves could help the company as it faces mounting criticism for the way it handles the dissemination of news. One of the key themes running through this entire release is Facebook’s emphasis that it is interested in working with journalists on this entire initiative, rather than dictating changes from a top-down level.

The changes came about as a response to conversations around Facebook’s role in the news ecosystem. The company has long maintained that it’s a platform for the dissemination of information but has disclaimed responsibility for the content. Wednesday’s moves are a recognition by the company that its position requires a new kind of responsibility.

While the timing is close to heated criticisms of Facebook over its handling of fake news during the election, the conversations that led to these changes began prior to that.

The moves are a good first step for Facebook, especially related to the company’s collaboration efforts around its platform, product development, tools, and training, Michael Friedenberg, the CEO of IDG Communications, said in an interview.

“I think this is a great starting point,” he said. “Anything that has to do with ... the business model and around the areas of monetization would be beneficial to see, beyond what they’ve already done.”

As part of its collaborative work with journalists, the company said it’s committed to gathering feedback from publishers. Facebook will be going on a tour to meet with publishers in the U.S. and Europe this year to gather feedback about its products and how it can better work with journalists.

The company is particularly interested in working to promote local news, Fidji Simo, Facebook’s director of product, said in a blog post. While that particular initiative is “in its earliest stages,” Facebook is interested in working with publications and journalists to promote content relevant to users’ local communities.

On Wednesday, the company announced that it’s working with a handful of news outlets on a new feature that would allow publishers to compile multiple Instant Articles in a single Facebook post for easier viewing. Facebook is also working with Bild, a German publication, to integrate trial subscription sign-ups into Instant Articles, which might help boost revenue from stories shared on the social network.

The company will also allow people to use CrowdTangle, a social media monitoring platform that it acquired in November, for free. The service previously required a paid subscription and is used by publishers like Vox Media and NPR.

To curb fake news, the company is working on a set of public service ads aimed at educating people on Facebook about how to be informed consumers of news. The company’s long-term goal is to provide support for organizations working on improving news literacy, which could include financial grants when necessary, Simo said.

On top of that, the company also highlighted its previously announced work to curb fake news in the platform, which includes a collaboration with fact-checking organizations on verifying stories on Facebook.

While these changes could help assuage concerns about journalism as it relates to Facebook, they don’t solve the core problem at hand. Facebook is one of the largest sources for news around the world, with hundreds of millions of daily active users.

The company controls the flow of information through its platform and has the ability to change how that works at will. Case in point: Last year, the company announced that it was reducing the number of news stories that will show up in users’ News Feeds, instead opting to prioritize posts by other users.

That one algorithmic change could have a far greater impact on the state of news on Facebook than all of these other initiatives, combined. We’ll have to see.

IDG Communications operates the IDG News Service. Neither entity is taking part in the Facebook experiments mentioned.

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Blair Hanley Frank

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