Facebook isn’t just a way for us to keep tabs on our friends—it’s now also our primary news site. The Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of millennials receive political news from Facebook, as opposed to television and other sources. As a result, Facebook is now taking steps to become more involved in the news that gets posted, shared and liked on its website.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced its journalism project. While the specifics are still subject to change, this project involves working with news organizations to create news products. In a blog post outlining the project, Facebook’s Director of Product Fidji Simo explained that the project includes creating new formats for stories, exploring business options and sponsoring journalism conferences, among other initiatives. Facebook is also planning to train journalists on how to use Facebook, through free online courses and a certificate course in the future. They’re also working to increase news literacy, prevent the spread of hoaxes and working with third–party fact–checking services. Updated information about the project will be posted at this link.
The announcement of this project raises questions about Facebook’s role in the news industry, its responsibilities as a media organization and the effectiveness of these initiatives.
Penn professors reacted generally positively to the project, praising some of the initiatives.
Carlin Romano, a professor at the Annenberg School who also worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 27 years, said, “I’m all for some of the positive–sounding things that they have announced. It’s great to improve news literacy. It’s great to have fact–checking.”
Professors were also supportive of the overarching goals of the project as well as its implications for traditional journalism.
“I think it’s a potentially welcome development…that legacy media is exploring ways to work with Facebook because they have no choice but to go where the readers are,” said Professor Richard Polman, who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 22 years and teaches a number of classes on journalism writing.
Not only does the project address the role of traditional news outlets, but it also reflects Facebook's growing role as an information distributor and its increasing influence on news media.
"I think it’s great that Facebook seems to be slowly but surely taking on more responsibility with regards to the future of journalism and to the general health of our news media ecosystem," said Victor Pickard, a professor at the Annenberg School specializing in media institutions and policy.
However, he went on to say, “I’m not entirely convinced that this is enough or that Facebook is taking on enough social responsibility at this time.”
The Role of Facebook in the News Industry
Facebook has an influential role in the news industry—without being a news organization. In some ways, Facebook is more powerful than traditional news outlets.
Peter Tarr, a professor who teaches courses on global journalism and science writing, commented on Facebook’s control over news media. “They’re [news media is] not in the driver’s seat anymore. It’s disturbing to me...Facebook is really in the driver’s seat,” he said.
This is in part because more and more people rely to Facebook for their news.
Pickard said, “Studies are showing that increasingly Facebook is our major news source, especially among young people. And this means that Facebook is increasingly becoming a kind of gatekeeper, or at least a kind of editor for the types of news that we are exposed to. “
Facebook's powerful position in the news industry is also because of its economic success. Facebook earns a substantial portion of online advertising revenue. Pickard states that some estimate that Facebook and Google combined account for 85 percent of the total digital advertising revenue.
Pickard said, “News organizations are somewhat at Facebook’s mercy in terms of how they share advertising revenue… web–based advertising typically pays a small fraction of the kind of revenue that traditional print advertising would generate.”
Facebook, while statistically popular and economically powerful, faces challenges in defining their responsibilities as both a social media site and as a distributor of news and information.
Polman said, “The problem they’re struggling with is that on the one hand they want to be kind of like an open forum for the exchange of information. They don’t want to be a censor.”
Facebook is a social network which allows people to connect and communicate. The fact that it is now a source of news puts additional demands and concerns on Facebook.
Polman asked, “Do they have a higher responsibility to the truth?”
Can Facebook Save Journalism?
Many believe that journalism, is a dying, if not already dead, industry.
“Newspapers are becoming dinosaurs rapidly, and they’re not the same online as they are in print,” said Tarr.
This allows Facebook to take on a larger role—in either supporting or replacing traditional news media. Polman saw Facebook’s initiative as a way to help the journalism industry.
“If they can do meaningful partnerships with Facebook, they can potentially help drive the news conversation and perhaps find new revenue streams,” Polman said.
Traditional news media has constantly had to evolve and adapt to newer and newer formats—from digital, to videos, to social media. Facebook's partnership could be seen as part of this evolution and as a helpful way to ensure they progress and stay up–to–date with their audiences.
He said, “The future is now, and this is what the future looks like. The legacy media has to change with the times and if they’re going to remain relevant and financially viable they have to adapt.”
Romano had a less optimistic view of the project, stressing that Facebook, as a large, powerful organization, is profiting off of the efforts of trained journalists and struggling news organizations.
“I wish Facebook would take some of its billions and invest it in actual journalism…I still see something a bit exploitative in what Facebook is doing,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of traditional journalism. He said, “We need more reporters. We need more journalists, not more platforms and venues.”
Facebook's project highlights both how news organizations can grow and succeed in the future and the current struggling condition of traditional journalism.
“This is a good sign," said Pickard. "But we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that this is really going to save journalism."