In Germany, questions hang on the impact of Facebook’s latest news initiative

Dented by algorithm changes and decreasing organic reach, news publishers and industry executives in Germany are questioning the impact of Facebook’s latest push to get more news content on the platform.

Over the last few months, Facebook has been contacting German partners about its initiative to index news pages on the platform and classify “trustworthy” news sources. While it’s not difficult to register a news page, German publishers, which have always held firm against the growing dominance of U.S. tech platforms, have questions about how the initiative will benefit them.

The aim of Facebook’s news page indexing is to iron out a number of wrinkles it has with the news industry, like clamping down on clickbait and the spread of misinformation, in theory, by giving readers more information about where content comes from. Since launching in the U.S. last May, it now allows Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch and German language pages. Any news page can register as long as it follows set guidelines which have developed with news organizations, academics and industry groups. Indexing news pages will also help determine which news publishers should be exempt from all of its Ad Libraries, which aggrieved publishers.

When contacted for this piece, a Facebook spokesperson said it expects the index to impact products in the future, but it doesn’t have an immediate impact.

A few weeks ago, Jesper Doub, Facebook’s director of media partnerships for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the platform is looking for ways to help news publishers make money, referencing that it’s classifying trustworthy news sources to reduce clickbait.

“Based on the News Feed changes a year ago, everyone is still hesitant and doubting Facebook’s actions,” said Oliver von Wersch, an independent publishing consultant and former Gruner + Jahr executive. “That is of no big surprise that someone like Spiegel is ‘trustworthy.’ The big question is the impact on reach and monetization for publishers, and that is still unclear. The question is: How can Facebook become more relevant as an organic news channel?”

Another issue is how to gauge what makes content trustworthy. And there’s a fear that Facebook could take too much of a binary approach.

“They’ll want to do this programmatically or algorithmically. But to date, I’ve not seen a successful attempt at that,” said a publishing executive who had contributed suggestions to the guidelines. “Will it benefit news publishers in their drive to sustainability? I don’t really see that it would.” The publishing executive added that it sensed “zero commitment from Facebook” to help with sustainability.

Ultimately publishers want to make money from their content, but publishers’ Facebook referral traffic has decreased over the last 18 months, making the platform a less significant traffic and revenue driver.

For Facebook, having news on its platform gives it credibility but isn’t much of a money maker. The focus tends to shift to products that do, like video.

All U.S. tech platforms have to work harder in Germany to entice publishers and advertisers to work with them, particularly after so many data-privacy and brand-safety errors.

“I think social platform usage is primarily influenced by trust in the platforms. I think overall Cambridge Analytica did great harm here,” said Robert Jacobi, activation director at Essence, Germany. “What is different here is the strong local publishers, which are also quite reluctant to work with the big platforms like Google or Facebook and therefore build up their own data alliance instead.”

There are glimmers of more willingness to pay publishers for news. Facebook has been talking with news publishers about a dedicated news tab where publishers expect to share the ad revenue with Facebook from their stories and keep revenue from subscriptions. In Germany, media company ProSiebenSat. 1 has a deal with Facebook to publish short episodes and clips of its popular TV shows like “Germany’s Next Top Model” on Facebook Watch.

Where Facebook could prove more helpful in Germany is by developing products with local news organizations; in April, it made headway with the launch of a local news accelerator program. But Facebook Instant Articles is one example where publishers have pulled away because they’ve been unable to generate much revenue, given the development costs and investment.

“Everyone has kept a distance and is quite critical. Facebook has to create something positive,” said von Wersch. “Right now, it’s a partner which is important, for sure, but [referral traffic] has decreased so much it’s not necessarily worth the effort in investing in cooperation with Facebook. A lot of publishers are waiting to see what bets [Facebook] will make.”

One hope is that Doub, who joined Facebook last year after previously having been one of its critics in his role as managing director at Spiegel Online, will help drive an agenda of more collaboration with publishers on developing products. Previously, publishers have grumbled that either there were too few people in Germany to contact about European-publisher related issues or the matrix structure at a company as large as Facebook made it more tricky to work out who.

In this sense, the situation is looking more optimistic for Facebook in Germany.

“This is a positive,” said von Wersch. “In the past, Facebook would announce products, and nothing would happen. Now, there are operative people really working on these projects.”

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