Facebook’s First Newsroom Imploded. Now It’s Trying Again.

By Blake.Montgomery@thedailybeast.com (Blake Montgomery)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Facebook has a new plan to hire a team of seasoned journalists who will curate news stories to display to users, not unlike its shuttered “Trending Topics” section.

In its announcement of the news, the company did not say how many journalists it plans to hire. The new deal will curate the News Tab, a separate product from Facebook’s News Feed that will appear only in the mobile app. In spite of the plan to hire journalists, the new section will show recent and relevant stories to readers mostly via an algorithm and its editors will not edit headlines or write stories themselves.

“Our goal with the News Tab is to provide a personalized, highly relevant experience for people,” Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, said in a statement. “The majority of stories people will see will appear in the tab via algorithmic selection. To start, for the Top News section of the tab we’re pulling together a small team of journalists to ensure we’re highlighting the right stories.”

News Tab will not be agnostic to user preferences, though. Facebook plans for selection to be based on Pages they follow, publications they subscribe to, and news they share and engage with elsewhere on Facebook.

In recent months, Facebook has been pitching content licensing deals worth millions of dollars a year to publishers for its reimagined news module, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Aside from an interest in paying publishers, the News Tab is a reincarnation of Trending Topics, a previous Facebook product that algorithmically selected widely shared news stories and repackaged them under headlines written by editors. When a 2016 Gizmodo story alleged that Facebook workers admitted to suppressing right-wing viewpoints, Trending Topics became a genesis point for now-familiar complaints that Facebook is biased against conservative views. 

Facebook later fired the human curators involved in the project and left its oversight to engineers, a decision that may cast a shadow over its News Tab efforts. The company attempted to distance News Tab from Trending Topics in a statement given on background.

The story has since been repudiated by the people quoted in it and former moderators told The New York Times that their team was small, young, and without the power to steer an institution like Facebook towards one political perspective. 

Many tech companies hire human editors and curators: LinkedIn employs a staff of writers and editors to produce their own content and present posts written by “LinkedInfluencers;” Twitter staff put together many of the social network’s featured Moments; and editors curate the stories highlighted on Apple News. Facebook announced a series of grants to support local news in July, as did Google. News publishers have long called for Facebook to share its firehose of ad revenue with them and blamed the social network for devastating the media industry’s revenues. 

In 2019, curating the news is an even trickier business for Facebook than ever. In the last three years, the company has come under fire for facilitating the spread of Russian state-sponsored disinformation in the 2016 U.S. election campaign. Those concerns have only grown over time, and both Facebook and Twitter said Monday that they had blocked advertisements bought by Chinese government-linked accounts that aimed to discredit pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. 

Facebook’s algorithm itself is also controversial. The News Feed algorithm and other Facebook recommendation engines regularly pushed users to more controversial content because it elicited stronger reactions and more shares. The effect was so pronounced that one analysis found that fake news publishers outperformed the top news outlets in total engagement in the three months leading up to the 2016 election. 

In the wake of Facebook’s disinformation scandals and recent privacy woes, the company has sought to shore up its reputation as both a trusted source of information and an online space where users feel they can communicate freely. Facebook has, for instance, cracked down on misinformation campaigns globally and emphasized private groups in marketing campaigns.

The company plans to release its latest algorithmic news hub by the end of the year, according to Axios, with a test beginning in October.

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