Facebook on Local News Partnerships: ‘We’re Just Getting Started’

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Once a self-defined technology company, Facebook recently launched the “Facebook Journalism Project” to meet the “needs” of a news industry that spoke in near-unison in saying it benefited too little from all the free editorial content it made available to the giant distribution platform.

In this Q & A, Josh Mabry, manager of Facebook’s local news partnerships, details what FB is doing and plans to do at the community level of the news industry:

What’s behind the Facebook Journalism Project and what’s in it for local news providers?
We feel that local news is the starting place for great journalism, and we understand that quality journalism costs money to produce. It’s what we call out in the Facebook Journalism Project and it’s something I’m personally passionate about having worked in local news before coming to Facebook last year. (Ask me about duct taping a cell phone to a DVC-pro cam in order to get the perfect shot.)

We’ve learned a lot since the launch of FJP in January. Closer collaboration with publishers on product development is already driving innovation that we couldn’t have achieved on our own. They’re helping us build tools that empower their storytelling, create opportunities for deeper relationships with audiences, and ultimately realize more value for their businesses on and off of Facebook.

For example, video is a core part of the storytelling process for many publishers, and it’s growing in popularity with audience. So we’re testing ad breaks as a way to build new value opportunities. Other publishers are most interested in driving subscriptions, so we’re working to support subscriptions within Facebook Instant Articles and will begin running early tests by the end of the year.

Updates to Instant Articles have been an important early result of our close collaboration with publishers. More than 10,000 publishers now use Facebook Instant Articles. Based on direct publisher feedback, we’ve introduced Call to Action (CTA) buttons that are helping publishers build deeper and more direct relationships with their audiences in IA. With a current rate of more than 25,000 per day across all publishers— we’ve seen over 2 million email sign-ups as a result of the newsletter sign-up CTA.

We’re encouraged by progress like this, and we’re continuing to invest in tools publishers can use to support their work.

We also want to support local newsrooms in other ways, including helping people discover local news on Facebook and providing local journalists with data, training and resources. We’ve met with local newsrooms across the world and just last week, we hosted Facebook Journalism Project New Days workshops in Washington, D.C. and Boston to provide local publishers with product training, feedback sessions, and 1:1 help desks. The feedback local news publishers share with us at these events helps us know what we need to work on.

Looking at monetization for local publishers specifically, what is the Journalism Project doing?
We want to support all news publishers, including local newsrooms, which is why we’ve introduced a range of monetization options, including Branded Content and Instant Articles. As I mentioned before, more than 10,000 publishers around the world use Instant Articles, and the revenue per 1,000 page views that publishers see from Facebook Audience Network within Instant Articles has increased by over 50%.

We also recently introduced ad units in the related articles section at the bottom of Instant Articles, and Tribune Broadcasting is an example of a local publisher that is seeing success with that update, saying that “the additional revenue from them brings mobile web and Instant Article revenue to at least an equal point. We’re excited to continue the conversation and collaboration with publishers to find ways to help drive value that supports the journalism they are doing.

Facebook has had over two years of experience with Instant Articles. What’s your assessment of this product in meeting the needs of local news publishers?
We have found that people are less likely to bounce when articles load fast, more likely to share Instant Articles than mobile web links, and in a study we commissioned with Nielsen earlier this year, we found that on average people read more articles when they see Instant Articles in their News Feed. In fact, on average, people in the US and Canada click and read over 25% more Instant Articles than mobile web equivalents. That’s great news for Facebook users and for publishers.

We know local news discovery is particularly important to partners. Once you’ve captured the interest of a reader with one article, how can you improve their experience so that they explore a second, third and four article in the same moment? Updates to Instant Articles now allow a reader to easily discover more stories by swiping horizontally. We’ve also launched a more visual design for suggested stories at the bottom of each article that features thumbnail images and larger article units, along with total counts of reader Reactions and Comments to give readers more signals to use when choosing which stories to read next.

We’ve been working closely with local publishers to make sure they can maximize the value of Instant Articles for them. However, we recognize we still have work to do as every publisher has a different business model and goals. Just in the last six months, with that in mind, we gave publishers on Instant Articles more flexibility in ad placements, increased ad density from every 350 words to every 250, and introduced ad units in the related articles section at the bottom of Instant Articles.

We’re excited by the recent momentum we’ve seen more publishers than ever using the product, and will continue to invest in Instant Articles.

You’ve met and talked in detail with a lot of local publishers. Based on your experiences, what qualities define these publishers as they seek to strengthen their sites by capitalizing on partnering with Facebook ?
We talk to all kinds of journalists and news outlets each day. Whether they’re part of a large company supporting a network of local publications across the country, or a two-person team running a Facebook Group focused on the neighborhood they live in, a common theme is always present. Local journalists are working to serve and inform their communities. In our six month update this summer, we announced that since launching the Facebook Journalism Project, we’ve met with something like 2,600 publishers around the world – and as you can imagine, we’re talking to more and more each day. In every case, you’ll find community is at the heart of their work. Community is at the heart of what we’re working to support at Facebook.

You’re now well past the six-month mark of the Journalism Project. Do you see it moving into any additional directions?
We’re just getting started. Our work will continue to focus on the three pillars of the Facebook Journalism Project: 1) collaborative development of news products, 2) training and tools for journalists and 3) training and tools for an informed community.

Facebook’s Josh Mabry (far right) at Journalism Project session.

We’ve learned a lot since launch, and know it’s going to take a concerted effort on all of our parts to help build a future where quality journalism can thrive. We recently hired a local news product manager, Anthea Watson-Strong and look forward sharing results around the tests she and her team are conducting to connect users with more local news.

Some local news publishers want more data from Facebook to help them improve user experiences. What’s Facebook doing in that area?
Our goal has been to help publishers make more informed decisions about their business and have more insight into data. Late last year, we acquired CrowdTangle and as part of the Facebook Journalism Project we made it free for publishers and journalism schools to help give partners the data and insights they need.

CrowdTangle is now being used in over 1,000 local newsrooms — a number we expect to continue growing — and publishers tell us they use it to monitor important stories and track communities and discussions relevant to their work

Local publishers more than ever seek to build deeper relationships with their users. What is Facebook doing here?
Historically, Facebook has been a place where publishers think about reaching very large audiences— many publishers describe this as the top of the funnel. It offers the opportunity to get your stories in front of the two billion people on Facebook. But the next step for many publishers is to build that deeper relationship with folks in their audience, eventually encouraging them to download an app, or sign-up for an e-mail newsletter or buy a subscription— moving folks further down the funnel.

That’s why we’ve launched free tools that empower publishers to build these relationships on Facebook, like the Call-to-Action units. The subscriptions tool we’re building allows publishers to own the customer transaction all the way through. If people subscribe to a local news publisher after seeing news stories on Facebook, the money goes directly to the publisher and Facebook doesn’t take a cut.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a new platform mission in June — to “bring the world closer together.” As part of the mission, Facebook wants to increase the number of FB users in “meaningful” groups from the present 100 million to 1 billion. Can local news providers help FB achieve this mission in a mutually beneficial way?
As we’ve shared with Poynter, we’re currently testing ways to help people find local groups and get connected with their community via local news. After a person consumes an article from a local news publisher, we will show the user a unit that encourages them to post the article in a relevant local group they’re already a member of or a unit that encourages them to join a relevant local group.

Using this and other tests, we plan to continue working with local publishers to help more people discover the news they’re publishing on Facebook while increasing the number of users in meaningful groups.

Local news publishers cite many specific needs: They want “more control” over user experiences, like, for example, Facebook users having the ability to sign up to follow high school sports scores and crime news and other “micro-experiences.” Local providers want to do more with local election results on Facebook beyond publishing text, photos and video – through coding with Facebook API or at least partnering with FB products. Publishers want Facebook to allow its users to “declare interests and even sign up directly with email or at least FB ID to receive specific feeds and offers from news and other publishers.” Your comment?
As publishers look to grow deeper relationships with audiences on and off of Facebook, we’re excited to continue exploring new formats, ways to drive additional business value, and ultimately— tools that “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” We’ll say it again and again — we’re just getting started.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.