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Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook may pay publishers to put their stuff in a dedicated news section

The Facebook CEO floated a “news tab to surface more high-quality news,” and said he’s willing to write checks to support it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

More than a year after announcing Facebook would feature less news, Mark Zuckerberg says he has a new idea: He wants to create a section of his social network that would be devoted to “high-quality news,” and may pay publishers that share their stuff there.

Zuckerberg floated the idea in a conversation with Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner, which Facebook has recorded and posted here.

“We talked about the role quality journalism plays in building informed communities and the principles Facebook should use for building a news tab to surface more high-quality news, including the business model and ecosystem to support it,” Zuckerberg writes in the introduction to the chat.

In his discussion with Döpfner, Zuckerberg talks about building a Facebook feature so that “users who want more news content can do that,” and says his company could “potentially have a direct relationship with publishers to make sure that their content is available, if it’s really high-quality content.”

That is: Zuckerberg is talking about paying publishers some kind of licensing fee.

“That’s definitely something that I think we should be thinking about here, because the relationship between us and publishers is different in a surface where we’re showing the content on the basis of us believing that it’s high-quality, trustworthy content,” Zuckerberg told Döpfner.

Zuckerberg doesn’t mention any plans to charge Facebook customers who read news stories on the site, and a person familiar with his thinking says the news tab would be free to users: “This isn’t a revenue play for us.”

In Zuckerberg’s words: “We’re coming to this from a very different perspective than I think some of the other players in the space who view news as a way that they want to maximize their revenue. That’s not necessarily the way that we’re thinking about this.”

That’s a major pivot for Facebook, which has tried several strategies to work with news publishers but with a few exceptions hasn’t paid them directly for their content. Instead, the company has tried to entice publishers to share their stuff on Facebook by rewarding them with eyeballs, or a share of advertising dollars.

Zuckerberg’s video is the first public appearance of an idea Facebook executives have been discussing and tinkering with for months. Both outgoing product boss Chris Cox and Campbell Brown, the company’s head of news partnerships, have championed the project, and Facebook has tested the idea of a dedicated news tab internally.

The discussion also comes as Zuckerberg is making a public relations and lobbying push in Europe and the US. Over the weekend, in an op-ed he published in the Washington Post, Zuckerberg asked world leaders to help create new regulations for Facebook and other internet companies.

Facebook has played with the idea of a dedicated News Feed before. In the fall of 2017, it moved almost all the stuff posted by publishers and other companies into a separate “explore” feed in six countries, but abandoned the test by March 2018.

This time around, Zuckerberg isn’t suggesting Facebook would quarantine all news into the new tab; instead, it would create a section for people who want to use Facebook as a dedicated newsreader, comparing it to the dedicated video tab Facebook has built up over the past few years.

“One of the things that I’ve been thinking about at Facebook is how to make it so that the people who use our services and want to get more news content can do that,” Zuckerberg says in his video. He continues:

You know, in News Feed, primarily people come to the service to connect with friends, to get updates on people’s day to day lives. There’s a lot of news content in there because it’s so important. But there’s a lot of people who have a demand to want more news ... I think there are going to be, call it 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of people in our community, who really want to go deep and have an experience which is — that they can go to that’s all news that will give us hopefully the ability to dramatically increase the distribution and, if it’s successful, the monetization to high quality participants in the ecosystem so that’s something I’m personally excited about.

Facebook hasn’t committed to the idea of paying publishers directly, and may still end up trying to entice publishers with ad revenue, bolstered by minimum guarantees, according to a Facebook source, who says the company expects to have the news tab up and running by the end of 2019.

And as Zuckerberg notes in his comments, he isn’t sure whether Facebook should be curating a mix of news for users or letting them pick most of what they want to see. Facebook executives are currently discussing whether they’d need to hire a team of editors to help manage the product.

Expect publishers to be wary of Facebook’s newest proposal, since it comes after multiple strategy changes: Facebook has alternately told publishers to give it their best stuff and let Facebook host that content directly on its site, and told them Facebook would be de-emphasizing the role of news content.

On the other hand, Facebook and Google are swallowing up an ever-increasing share of online advertising — which may make publishers receptive to any kind of proposal that generates more revenue for them.

And Zuckerberg’s proposal comes shortly after the launch of a new Apple news product, which charges users $10 a month for a “Netflix for magazines” offer.

Apple has tried to convince publishers who generate daily news to join that offering, but has been rejected by the New York Times and the Washington Post, who objected to Apple’s plan to keep 50 percent of the revenue and control most subscriber info. Apple has signed some news publishers including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Vox Media, which owns this site.

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