Facebook’s Campbell Brown: “This is not about us trying to make everybody happy”

Campbell Brown, who heads Facebook’s news partnerships team, and Adam Mosseri, Facebook VP of News Feed, took the stage at Recode’s Code Media conference Monday to discuss, oh, the company that we all think about all the time now. A few key bits from the Recode panel: Campbell Brown: Facebook is “having a point of view and leaning into quality news…taking a step to try to define what quality news looks like, and give that a boost.” This will be done partly through much-discussed crowdsourced rankings. Mosseri insisted “it’s not about being objective or subjective; it’s about where we have values and where we are clear about them and how we pursue them, and, obviously, debating that.” This sounds…subjective? But “we’re never gonna weigh in, for instance, on one ideological view over another or one political view over another.” He also said that “what
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looking for, specifically, is publishers that are trusted by a wide variety of readers.” Brown, however, brought up an actual concern about the survey: “So much of the best journalism today is being done by smaller, more niche, more focused journalists who aren’t gonna have the brand recognition” to be trusted by a wide variety of readers. She cited Vox and Foreign Policy as examples: “To me, this is the future of journalism. This is where the experts are gonna be,” so the company needs to find a better way to surface them in News Feed even if a lot of people haven’t heard of them. (Gordon Pennycook and David Rand also raised this concern in a recent paper.) Subscriptions via iOS are coming to Facebook Instant Articles on March 1, following a fight with Apple. This means that publishers with paywalls can bring those paywalls into Instant Articles, prompting a reader to subscribe after he or she reads five articles. The experiment’s been run on Android over the past couple months but is too small to have resulted in meaningful data, Brown claimed: “We need to be moving forward on iOS and we’re gonna need a few months to get a sense of where we are.” Brown said it’s “incredible to me that Facebook doesn’t have a destination for news,” hastening to note that “this is not suggesting that there won’t be news in News Feed” (although that, or being banished to an “Explore” tab, is exactly what publishers are worried about) and said the company is adding a hard-news video section to Watch. “Hopefully that can open up some new opportunities for partners who are doing hard-news video.” (Publishers doing text-driven hard-news content aren’t part of this.) She also mentioned that hard-news video is extremely hard to monetize, and it’s not really what people come to Facebook to watch. There was a strain of “if they don’t like us, they should just opt out!” Brown expressed frustration over publishers’ “constant focus” on whether Facebook traffic is up or down — “that is the nature of what Facebook is unless Adam will make a pledge to us right now that he will never make another ranking change, and I don’t think he will. Your traffic’s always gonna go up and down. I want to shift the conversation more to conversions, to what we can do around video monetization, to how we can provide more data and build better tools so that publishers can build a more loyal audience, and that’s where I think we should focus attention because that’s where I think we can move the ball.” Also, she said:
I also want to clear up this idea that, like — my job is not to go recruit people from news organizations to put their stuff on Facebook. My job isn’t to convince them to stay on Facebook. If someone feels that being on Facebook is not good for your business, you shouldn’t be on Facebook. Let’s be clear about that. This is not about us trying to make everybody happy. My job is not to make publishers happy. My job is to ensure that there is quality news on Facebook and that the publishers who want to be on Facebook and want to do quality news on Facebook have a business model that works. That’s very different. So if anyone feels that this isn’t the right platform for them, then they should not be on Facebook. I don’t see us as the answer to the problem.

This, Recode’s Peter Kafka pointed out, isn’t totally fair, both because of the experiments for which Facebook has sought publisher buy-in (see: Instant Articles) and because, “whether or not [publishers] want to play ball, you and Google dominate eyeballs and revenue, so they can’t opt out of participating with you, really.” Okay, Brown said: “I think that’s a really fair point. I think we have not done a great job in the past and we need to think about this differently going forward around setting expectations when we launch a test with a set of partners. It’s really thrash-y and really unsettling for people who are trying to have some stability so they can build a business…we have to be way more transparent and candid with publishers going in that this may not work out. And jump in with us if you’re ready for a big experiment that might not work! I think we have not been as open about that as we should have been, and it’s an important learning for us going forward.”
The Code Media conference happened to take place on the same day that Wired dropped a feature story, “Inside the two years that shook Facebook — and the world,” by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein, about “the rolling disaster that has enveloped Facebook since early 2016” when Gizmodo published a story alleging that Facebook’s trending topics section “routinely suppressed conservative news” — leading to the mega-backlash, debate, and ongoing crisis over what Facebook’s role in spreading news should be, especially as it became clear that the Russian government was systematically using the platform to spread disinformation. The Wired story reports, in part, that the Facebook Journalism Project, which Brown leads, was thrown together hastily. People on Twitter suggested that Facebook shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this and that a lot of what the company says is, well, just talk.

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