Facebook starts a journalism project

Facebook starts a journalism project

Facebook starts a journalism project

Facebook is increasingly owning up to its role as one of the world’s largest distributors of information by taking more responsibility for the millions of stories that flow through its site.

On Wednesday, the social network made its latest move to acknowledge that role by announcing the Facebook Journalism Project.

The effort calls for the company to forge deeper ties with publishers by collaborating on publishing tools and features before they are released. Facebook will also develop training programmes and tools for journalists to teach them how to better search its site to report on news and events. And Facebook wants to help train members of the public to find news sources they trust, while fighting the spread of fake news across its site.

The project will begin in coming weeks in partnership with publishers including The Washington Post and Vox.

The effort is Facebook’s most explicit acknowledgment that it has some responsibility for the consumption and mass distribution of media.

The company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has previously said he considers Facebook a technology entity, but the social network has faced more questions over the past 18 months about how what it shows on its site affects its roughly 1.8 billion members.

Last month, Facebook announced partnerships with outside groups to help fact-check stories on its site and to more clearly denote which ones may be false. At the time, Zuckerberg said that while he thought of Facebook as a tech company, “I recognise we have a greater responsibility than just building technology that information flows through.”

In an interview about the Facebook Journalism Project, Fidji Simo, a director of product at the company, said: “We’ve heard loud and clear over the last year that there are questions about our role in this ecosystem. It has added an extra motivation for us to be involved even earlier on.”

The new initiative is something of a peace offering from Facebook to publishers who share news content on the network.

Publishers have long considered Facebook a kind of frenemy — increasingly relying on the social network to spread their stories but often wary of depending too much on one medium to reach an audience. Facebook also regularly changes its algorithms, which can make or break a publisher’s traffic and revenue. Because of such changes, sites like Elite Daily and Upworthy have experienced wide swings in traffic.

Facebook is also partly responsible for an upheaval in the advertising industry, with online ad dollars now being spent on the social network and Google instead of directly with publishers. Google and Facebook accounted for nearly all the growth in the US digital advertising market in the first half of 2016, according to estimates from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and company earnings reports.

Facebook has sometimes treated publishers cavalierly. In the past, the company would send business development employees to news organisations to brief them on coming products and to solicit partnerships.

That was the case with the company’s Instant Articles product, which loads publishers’ mobile content inside Facebook more quickly than on a traditional mobile browser. Publishers complained that Facebook approached them late in the development process and expected them to conform to its technical requirements.

“There would be times when Facebook would come to us with a new product or function, but by the time we were invited to participate, product development was already kind of a done deal,” said Shailesh Prakash, the chief intelligence officer and vice-president for digital product development for The Washington Post. “You had to fix your content and design into their parameters.”

“Now we’re finally coming to a more formal positioning of a model where we can begin working together much earlier in the process,” Prakash said.

Facebook and Prakash said that earlier collaboration could improve relationships and perhaps help overcome some of the challenges that publishers face, such as how to increase subscriptions or newsletter sign-ups from inside Facebook.

The company has also expressed interest in working with publishers to build products for local news and in promoting small, independent news media.

Facebook also plans to make CrowdTangle, an analytics tool it acquired in November, free to use. CrowdTangle is popular with publishers and journalists searching for Facebook data.

Other components of the project may help repair Facebook’s status as a place to discover news, after it attracted criticism over the amount of fake stories appearing on the site. Facebook said it hoped to train audiences with “news literacy” programmes to better spot false news, as well as by producing public-service announcements about how to determine which news sources to trust. Facebook may dole out financial assistance grants for such projects.

It cautioned that its journalism project was in the early stages and would evolve as the needs of publishers, readers and journalists changed. But the company said it would not shy from questions about its role in news media.

“As an industry, we have a lot to learn collaboratively,” said Simo, the Facebook director of product. “What you’re seeing is an increased commitment to that.”