Don't look to Facebook to fix the news

Facebook has again changed the rules for showing content in its news feed, deciding to favor posts from family and friends over articles from news organizations. A few days ago, it announced that will also let readers rank those outlets’ credibility. Today, it has said it will promote more local news stories in the news feed.

These moves come in part as a response to mounting public concern. In a recent article published in Washington Monthly, former Facebook advisor Roger McNamee expressed alarm at how the social network’s optimized-for-addiction news feed can be exploited to foment outrage and polarization. The headline on McNamee’s article was blunt: “How to fix Facebook — before it fixes us.”

But the idea that Facebook might address these problems by featuring less content from publishers is all but an admission that, at least when it comes to news, Facebook can’t be fixed.

Facebook is in the business of converting your attention into dollars. The news feed is ruthlessly optimized to be addictive not because the company is callous, but because that is what its titanic economic engine demands. In a way, the algorithm rules Facebook. If Mark Zuckerberg were to stop its march, it would undermine the business.

Technologists sometimes discuss the fear that an artificial intelligence (A.I.) will become so efficient at executing a specific task that it will harm humans in the process. But for media, the killer A.I. is already here, and it has come in the form of the Facebook news feed.

The solution to our fake news woes, then, must come from somewhere else. It must come from readers choosing a different way to consume media, and publishers choosing not to play Facebook’s game.

To do this, media companies must move away from advertising, a market that, at least online, Facebook and Google virtually control. In 2018, the two tech giants are expected to account for 84 percent of global digital advertising spend, according to GroupM.

Just being tech-savvy is not enough. In 2017, BuzzFeed laid off six percent of its workforce after missing its annual revenue target. Earlier in the year, viral news startup Mic laid off 25 staffers and announced it would focus on “visual journalism.” Mashable, believed to have once been valued at $250 million, was sold for $50 million.

You can’t beat Facebook and Google at their game. But there is another game.

New opportunities are emerging for media businesses to flourish on the strength of readers paying publishers directly. Over the course of just a few months in 2017, The Wall Street Journal added more than 300,000 new subscribers and it has its sights set on 3 million in total. Patreon, a tech company that promotes patronage of the arts, paid out more than $150 million to creators on its platform in 2017. More than ten thousand people pay the profitable The Information $400 a year for its tech industry news coverage.

Having readers pay changes the consumer experience from addiction to choice. It changes the business model from delivering attention to delivering what readers consciously decide they want.

There is more work to be done. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and advocate of the “time well spent” movement, recently called advertising the “new coal” because it helped the early development of the online economy but has ultimately polluted our digital environment. The technologies that will replace advertising, such as subscriptions and micropayments, may not yet be enough to completely displace the lost source of revenue, Harris told Wired, “we can get to that point with technology if we make those investments now.”

Large media organizations like The Wall Street Journal and the The Washington Post are doing their parts to advance the cause, but we believe the most meaningful impact will come from entrepreneurial individuals and small teams who are creating media businesses from clean slates. For example, Ben Thompson, a Taiwan-based tech analyst, publishes a subscription newsletter called Stratechery that costs $10 a month or $100 a year and counts many thousands of subscribers. On his podcast and in his writing, Thompson has encouraged other people to follow his model.

Stratechery carries no ads and its readers feel a personal bond with Thompson. There is no sensationalism, nor outrage disguised as news, and there are no design tricks meant to persuade readers to click on just one more thing. Thompson is incentivized to consistently deliver quality analysis because his interests are completely aligned with his readers, not advertisers or tech platforms.

Three years ago, Thompson revealed that Stratechery had two thousand subscribers (a number he hasn’t updated since). The publication has grown in profile in the intervening time, and its Twitter following (and Thompson’s) suggests that today’s subscriber count is closer to ten thousand than two thousand. At that point, Thompson’s one-man operation would garner more than a million dollars in annual revenue.

Better yet? Facebook had nothing to do with it.

One day, we hope to be able to say the same for the rest of the media.