How Facebook is spending more to ensure wary publishers rely on it less

Facebook is eager to trumpet its new initiatives to help publishers, in particular, local news providers. But at the same time, executives are making pains to declare it is no savior for the industry.

This week, Facebook is rolling out a pair of initiatives around local news. On Monday, the platform launched the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network, an initiative designed to help publishers share information with one another about how to create communities and direct relationships with their audiences. Today, approximately 100 publishers, researchers and academics will convene in Denver for a two-day conference focused on local news, subscriptions, memberships and audience development, with many of the case studies — such as the Seattle Times talking about subscription promotions — involving projects that took place off of Facebook’s platform.

After years of courting publishers to try new Facebook products and features, Facebook has begun telling publishers — with increasing directness — that they should not rely too much on its News Feed or other features for their businesses.

Facebook’s investments in local news, which the company has treated like a mix of business investment and charitable donations, have largely reflected that message. Similarly, Facebook has approached news programming on Facebook Watch no differently than a TV network might: It’s been telling production partners that only one-third of the news shows Facebook invested in last year for Facebook Watch will be renewed this coming year.

That frankness contrasts with Facebook’s earlier style of interacting with publishers, when it would regularly try to steer them toward a new product it was working on, with the promise of an increased audience. “To some publishers, it’s almost become a bit of a punchline: ‘Here’s what Facebook says we should focus on today,'” said Melissa Chowning, the founder of audience development consultancy Twenty-First Digital.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s donation-like programs have yielded mixed results. Publishers give Facebook’s subscription tools a middling grade. But Facebook’s accelerator programs have drawn rave reviews from participants, which ranged from newspapers such as the Seattle Times to local nonprofit news organizations such as Michigan’s The Bridge Magazine.

Getting a free handout helped: Participants in those accelerators each received grants at the end of their 12-week runs, which they were free to use to apply what they learned during the program.

Many of the participants did not spend any of that money on Facebook, said Jim Friedlich, the executive director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute. Most, Friedlich said, only spent a “small” amount on Facebook ads — either to grow their audiences or drive subscriptions — and some participants actually spent more on Google.

Today, many publishers regard Facebook the way that a marketer might: as an effective, if increasingly expensive, way to target consumers. “If you’re looking to Facebook to build an audience from scratch, that’s not going to work anymore,” Chowning said. “But their ad manager can’t be beat.”

But for publishers that don’t want to turn Facebook purely into a channel for performance advertising, many are trying to figure out the value of the audience connections they do have on the platform.

“The real thing we’ve been trying to learn is what are the ways to measure other ways of value besides traffic conversion,” said Chris Sopher, the co-founder of local news startup Whereby.Us. “How do you measure the value of a productive conversation? The traditional stack in media hasn’t caught up with that.”

There are also more charitable endeavors. Facebook will begin accepting grant proposals from publishers hoping to try out community-building initiatives around local news. The Lenfest Institute will help assess these proposals, and Facebook will write the checks that cover the costs of the grant.

These initiatives are part of a nine-figure investment in local news that Facebook has pledged to make over the next few years. Facebook’s investments are encouraging to publishers that have been trying to diversify their revenue streams, in part to limit their exposure to the digital advertising market that Facebook plays a dominating role in.

Some of Facebook’s slightly more altruistic investments, such as its accelerator programs focused on subscriptions and memberships, have scored good grades from participants. “All four of our staffers came back saying what a revelation it was,” Spirited Media CEO Jim Brady said.

But the new investments also haven’t necessarily absolved Facebook from what some observers see as its deeper obligations to the media ecosystem that the platform has disrupted.

“We certainly support their accelerator program and we’ve supported [them] whenever they say they’re going to give grants, but none of that is the answer,” said David Chavern, the CEO of the News Media Alliance. “If they were willing to actually partner with the industry to help businesses — if they shared more revenue, shared more data, had some algorithmic stability — that would go further to help publishers than some charity.”

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