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Facebook tells publishers to take it or leave it

Facebook hired Campbell Brown as its head of news partnerships on January 6th. At the time, Brown wrote that she would “help news organizations and journalists work more closely and more effectively with Facebook.” In a post that has since been deleted, she wrote: “I will be working directly with our partners to help them understand how Facebook can expand the reach of their journalism, and contribute value to their businesses.”

What a difference a month can make. On stage at Code Media on Monday evening, Brown’s message to publishers was far less cheery. “My job is not to go recruit people from news organizations to put their stuff on Facebook,” she said.

Brown was asked about whether she was concerned that Brazil’s largest newspaper, Folha de Sao Paolo, had elected to stop publishing to its 6 million Facebook followers. She was not. “This didn’t come as a big surprise to me quite honestly,” she said. Folha hadn’t been publishing regularly on Facebook for a while, she said. And in any case, it wasn’t her job to persuade them.

”My job is to make sure there is quality news on Facebook and that publishers who want to be on Facebook … have a business model that works,” she said. “If anyone feels this isn’t the right platform for them, they should not be on Facebook.”

Brown struck a more confrontational tone than Facebook typically does in public. And maybe for that reason, there was something refreshing about it. After years of leading eager publishers from one product to another — from the false promise of Facebook Live to the weak monetization of Instant Articles — Facebook was finally ready to admit that the future of media was anyone’s guess.

”I don’t think any of us knows what the future of journalism looks like,” Brown said. “We’re going to have to experiment.” Brown said she wanted Facebook to communicate much more clearly to publishers: “We have to be way more transparent and candid with publishers going in that this may not work out,” she said. Her message to them was this: “Jump in with us if you’re ready for a big experiment that might not work.”

On one hand, Facebook has always been an experiment that might not work for publishers. But as long as web-based publications depend on display advertising revenue, Facebook’s audience of 2 billion-plus people was simply too big for them to ignore. Surely at that scale some publisher would get rich? And yet no publisher seems to have built a large brand sustained primarily by Facebook-generated advertising revenue.

Brown’s take-it-or-leave-it-message may land harshly on some publishers’ ears. But it also resets the terms of debate to something more grounded in reality. It struck me as a welcome move, and a canny one. Lowered expectations are easier to exceed.


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