Facebook announced on Monday that it was going to spend $100 million to help local news outlets during the coronavirus crisis. “It’s a moment where getting accurate news about the coronavirus is vital for all us,” says Campbell Brown, the former television news anchor and Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships. This urgent need for news comes as ad revenues for news sites are drying up. “Local journalists are being hit especially hard, even as people turn to them for critical information to keep their friends, families and communities safe,” Campbell wrote in a blog post announcing the grant. As if to put an exclamation point on that notion, also on Monday, the Gannett newspaper chain told employees at 100 newspapers that they would have to take unpaid leave.
Facebook’s gift to local news came after it offered a much smaller $1 million investment two weeks ago. That money was meant to support coronavirus coverage in local publications, but according to Brown, so many requests for that money came in that the company realized that a much bigger sum was needed. Of the $100 million Facebook is now promising to give out, $25 million will be disbursed as cash grants to local publishers in South Carolina, Missouri and Texas and other places to support their coverage of the pandemic, or to keep them afloat during the crisis. By far the bigger part, though, is earmarked for “marketing” to promote the journalism of local publications. When I asked Brown what that meant, she replied that Facebook would devote that much from its marketing budget, including Facebook ads, to help the bottom line of publications. (Last year Facebook announced a $300 million investment, spread over three years, to help local journalism; this effort is unchanged by the new announcement.)
The $100 million is part of Facebook’s general response to the pandemic which includes a Coronavirus (Covid-19) Information Center with content from the World Health Organization; an effort to scrub the News Feed of dangerous misinformation about the virus; and a ban on ads that try to sell bogus cures or gouge people trying to buy medical equipment.
But missing from the announcement was one thing that Facebook could do immediately to help surface articles about the pandemic: maximize the exposure to the News tab that CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a year ago and that launched last October at a splashy New York City event. Unlike the unmoderated and often untrustworthy mix of articles that people share on the News Feed, Facebook News is curated not by algorithms but actual human editors. They draw from a vetted list of publications—including The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and, yes, WIRED. In a shift in its policy, Facebook pays publishers for much of this content. A news industry that had been critical of Facebook said the company had finally done something right. Brown says that the curation team has adjusted its coverage to highlight news of the pandemic, creating a discrete collection of Covid-19 stories. (Ironically this work is going on while the head of Facebook’s curation for the News tab, Pulitzer-winning journalist Anne Kornblut, is herself recovering from Covid-19.)
The problem is that Facebook has buried its News tab as if it were Jimmy Hoffa.
If Facebook were to expose all its users to the News tab, it could potentially dispel some of the myths that still persist about coronavirus. And it would give voice to those news outlets that it deemed trustworthy. But despite considerable fanfare in announcing the product, Facebook has been maddeningly deliberate in rolling out the tab. Even today, five months later, not all users can access it.
When I asked Brown about this, she said that the tab was available to the vast majority, but not all, of Facebook’s US user base. When I said I hadn’t seen it, she said that I probably hadn’t tried to access it.
So with the help of a Facebook spokesperson, I began the hunt. Here’s what you have to do to find News on your Facebook mobile app. (Don’t even bother trying to find it on your laptop; it’s not available at all on desktop browsers.) On the lower right hand corner of the screen, press the little menu icon. You will see a screen of options for various tabs ranging from events to dating. But no news tab. To find that one, you hit the “See More” button at the bottom of the screen and scroll through a list of services. When I did this, the 13th option on the list was “News.” I opened it and, there, finally, I saw lead stories about the pandemic from trusted publications.
Facebook says that the News tab is still being tested and a gradual rollout had always been planned. It had no announcement about moving up the schedule to make sure trustworthy stories get exposed to readers.
Facebook’s latest investment in news comes at a time when its years-long effort to rehabilitate its reputation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal now seems to be getting some traction–not so much from its efforts to improve the service but because a house-bound nation is more dependent on its social graph. Does Brown think that Facebook has turned a corner?
“We’ve been building on great work for the last three to four years,” she says. “I think that we’re serving a need at this moment. And I’m proud to be working for a company that’s doing it well.”
So why not go all the way and free Facebook News?
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