Facebook, the social media giant on Tuesday, stated that it wants to empower independent writers and journalists by letting them monetize their works on the platform. It confirmed it plans to launch a new program for writers to self-publish the content, grow the audience, and monetize their offerings through different tools, starting with subscriptions. Facebook stated that it would roll out the platform in the upcoming months, starting from the United States.
Facebook’s new platform would face a range of competitors in the expanding self-publishing and newsletter space, including Twitter and Substack. Notably, Twitter is ramping up to roll out ‘Super Follows,’ which would allow individual users and publishers to make money from subscriptions. In January 2021, Twitter also acquired Revue, a startup that allows writers to self-publish subscription newsletters (1).
Campbell Brown, the VP of global news partnerships, Facebook, and Anthea Watson Strong, product manager (2), stated in a blog post that a large part of the initiative aims to support independent local journalists and writers who are often the lone voice covering a particular community.
The development also comes after Facebook’s battle with the Australian government over the country’s new law requiring social media and other internet platforms to pay for news content and as other countries also start to contemplate similar measures.
On Monday, News Corp-owned by Rupert Murdoch, announced a three-year agreement with Facebook to cover the media company’s Australian news outlets.
Facebook’s plan includes the intro for free, self-publishing tools with ‘robust styling’ options to create individual websites and email newsletters. It would be integrated with Facebook pages to allow publishing across multimedia setups, including photos, live videos, and stories according to the organization. Moreover, indie writers and journalists would also be able to create Facebook groups and tap into analytics to get insights into the content’s performance.
According to Facebook executives, the company is also looking to roll out features that would help the audience to discover new content and writers easily. The company stated that since 2018 it had invested more than 600 million USD to support journalism. It also recently said that the company is planning to invest over 1 billion USD in the news over the upcoming three years (3).
Facebook’s Collaboration with News Corp
Facebook announced a self-funded publishing platform for writers to pay Murdoch’s News Corp for content. On Tuesday, the social giant signed a multi-year deal with News Corp, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for Australia journalism content.
The transaction includes news content from Murdoch’s media, Australian person, national newspapers, major metropolitan publications including news.com.au, courier mail in Queensland, The Daily Telegraph in New South Wales, Herald Sun in Victoria, and other regional and community publications.
While explaining the transaction, Robert Thompson, the CEO of News Corp (4), stated that the agreement acts as a marker when modifying the terms of trade of journalism.
While he didn’t say much about how much Facebook is paying the company for the content, he stated that it would have a meaningful impact on the Australian news business.
Thompson further stated that Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team deserve praise for their part in supporting the future of journalism under extreme compulsion for more than a decade. Moreover, while Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch were leading the global debate, others in the industry were either silent or lying on the back as digital dysfunction could transform journalism into an ordination.
The deal follows Facebook’s dispute with the Australian government regarding a new law requiring big tech companies to play local news publishers to share content on platforms.
It is also worth highlighting that social media Giants were initially not prepared to pay for domestic publishers’ content. Facebook had also blocked all news websites last month on Australian platforms, both domestic and international (5).
The tech giant further restricted Australian users from sharing news content from Australian publishers.
Many critics across the globe described the development as undemocratic and accused Facebook of browbeating the democratic government.
Nevertheless, both parties have finally managed to reach a compromise on an important aspect of the law (6). And after the agreement, a few days later, Will Easton, the managing director of Facebook Australia, resumed the platform’s work to promote investment in public journalism and restore Facebook news for Australians with the new amendment to Australian law.
After that, Facebook made another move and stated that it is launching a service for independent authors and bloggers to undertake medium subscribe and more.
Facebook stated that it would start its operation in the United States by collaborating with a small subset of independent writers. It also said that the company would be the only voice that covers a particular community and offers tools and services particular to independent local journalists’ needs.
Facebook’s ‘Intention’ with the Newsletter Game
Newsletters started making headlines after Facebook announced its plan, which laid out some of its intentions in the journalism space. In a blog post titled, ‘Supporting independent writers,’ (7), the social media giant explained its point and drafted out the products it is currently developing. Campbell Brown and Anthea Watson Strong laid out the sketch:
- A free self-publishing tool with a robust styling option to develop individual websites and email newsletters
- Integration with Facebook Pages to facilitate publishing across several multimedia formats such as live videos, photos, and stories
- The ability to build Facebook groups and sustenance community of readers
- Features to aid audiences to easily find new content and writers, and helping creators to build direct relationships with the audience
- Insight for creators to understand their content’s performance
- Monetizations tools to build individual businesses and websites, starting with subscriptions
- Accelerator services to facilitate creators to collaborate and learn best practices
Moreover, Facebook is also planning to provide features to help writers find audiences and sell subscriptions along with analytics tools and accelerator programs to help creators come together and learn the best practice.
You are not alone if you find Facebook’s venture into a newsletter a bit surreal. There is no need to rehearse Facebook’s long history with the news business; we can say that it has been mostly unsatisfying and rocky for everyone involved.
At the same time, since Brown, the clear-eye and opinionated in a good way, joined the company in 2017, the social media giant’s news works have gradually been realistic. If the old Facebook had promised the moon to publishers, today, Facebook is more likely to offer as little as possible.
However, as the platform’s dominance has surged, so has a menace of excessive regulation.
As digital advertising revenues have narrowed, publishers around the world have gotten better at convincing policymakers that Facebook (along with Google) owe them a piece of the revenue pie. Australia is the most recent example of it, and it would not be the last (8).
Facebook has grudgingly paid up to no real material benefit to society. It is worth highlighting that the United States lost 16,000 journalism jobs last year. Platform grants have not been enough to hinder the bleeding previously, and we have no reason to believe that they will do so in the prospect.
Regardless, demands for these grants would only increase over the upcoming years, and for platforms in natural response to these demands is to attempt to change the laws. Facebook would certainly proceed to lobby around the globe, but it is attempting a secondary strategy with newsletters – it is trying to change the publishers.
While Facebook’s mission is to give people a voice, it is worth highlighting that its media partners have largely been with big organizations such as News Corp and CNN for over the first decade of its existence. Another Facebook-like approach to media collaborations would be to start at the individual level and help people develop their businesses that way.
After a long time of inattention to its creators, Facebook is now developing new ways for individuals to make money from their huge followings on Instagram. The social media giant is also doing the same with its Twitch rival, Facebook Gaming. Notably, it incidentally saw its watch time grow 79% in the previous year (9). Considering the light, turning individual writers into successful tiny media companies feels like a logical next step.
We are not here to say that Facebook newsletter ambitions are received warmly. A headline in The New Republic announced that ‘Facebook has Found a New Way to Ruin Media (10). While Jacob Silverman’s report doesn’t say much specifically about how Facebook newsletters would run the media, it does recount how difficult the media business is for the people who work in it. It also throws doubt on the idea that solo entrepreneurs and a small group of partners can do much to change that.
What’s in it For Creators?
There are some questions many would-be media moguls should ask before thrusting in with Facebook. Here are some questions that The Verge had asked the social media giant (11). For starters, they asked whether these individual websites would be hosted on the domain controlled by the author or Facebook. It is good news for the author if the creators can control; however, Casey Newton (12) asked creators to run away if Facebook is going to control these websites. Facebook had replied that it is too soon to discuss these details.
Secondly, is Facebook going to take a cut from the subscription revenue? There has been no answer from Facebook regarding the same. However, a spokeswoman highlighted that Facebook currently takes no cut from revenue generated by subscriptions initiated via Instant Articles product. She further stated that it would not cut any video creators’ revenue over at least August. If these points hint that Facebook would take no commission on newsletter subscription revenue, it will get the attention of at least a few creators who are currently giving up 5 to 10%.
The third and the most critical question is how committed Facebook would be to these creators over the long-term. Most of the journalists’ enmity towards the firm derives from the fact that the platform amplifies modifications all the time. It makes the platform a shaky ground to build up a business.
Suppose we even assume that Facebook’s interest in newsletters fades over time. In that case, it may not be as catastrophic to individuals as the pivot to videos was for big publishers. As long as individual creators can export their mailing list and customer relationship when the time arrives, they would find that the trouble was worth it.
What’s in it For Facebook?
While these questions about what is in for creators, it is also interesting to know what’s in it for Facebook.
It may not be obvious why Facebook would ever be interested in helping people create businesses off the platform on the surface. However, the opinion is rooted in the company’s old view of the News Feed as a space that blended posts from users’ friends with links to articles from publishers on the open web.
Mark Zuckerberg had announced two years ago that the company would gradually shift its product development to focus on private messaging and groups (13). And, notably, groups are the real opportunity for the company when it comes to newsletters.
Heather Cox Richardson, a historian, is the most successful individual author on Substack (14). She is on track to generate over 1 million USD subscription revenue this year. Many of her subscribers come from her Facebook page, which has more than 1.4 million followers.
For most of the people on Substack, newsletters provide a way to monetize users’ Twitter followings. However, a Facebook executive would look at Richardson and think about whether the company can help more people monetize their Facebook pages.
If Facebook can pull that off and create a thousand Richardsons around the globe, the company would show the world that it can support a different type of publishing, offering it a shiny new talking point as it battles with regulators worldwide.
Moreover, it would also help achieve Facebook’s vision for groups as the initiating point for several or even most of the talks that the average user has on the platform.
And hence, it looks like a win-win for Facebook and ought to offer prospective participants in the new experiment some confidence that the company’s commitment is genuine.
It is also worth highlighting that Facebook has announced its plans months before they would be available to the public. It indicates that Facebook wants to be these tools on the minds of anyone considering making a move in the short-term. It is especially true for users with large followings on Facebook and may otherwise move towards Substack or Revue, recently owned by Twitter.
While it may not be clear whether the move would work for Facebook, it seems clear why the company would want to give it a go.
Substack and Facebook
Another reason why the social media giant may have an opportunity in the space is that Substack seems to be giving it one.
Several writers on the platform have been unhappy since Substack published a blog post the previous week announcing its ‘pros’ program (15). The platform offers some writers significant advances to attract them towards the platform.
While the list of writers to whom advances have been awarded is not public, it could be more diverse than the public conversation over the past week has made it out to be. However, among the pros who have been open about their involvement, most of them are white and male.
The blog post outlines its decision to provide advances as business decisions and not an editorial one, which came across as wishful thinking. Meanwhile, several people who have taken advances from Substack have written several offensive things both on and off the platform. Now some other writers are questioning whether staying on the platform makes them complicit (16).
The logic behind this is that the paid subscriptions generate revenue that would be then used to fund the advances for people who attack journalists or add fuel to fears about transgender people, and so on.
In the midst of all this, Chris Best, the CEO of Substack, tweeted without any other setting, ‘defund the thought police.’ It seems to side with the platform’s most profitable edgelords over its most liberal and centrist creators (17).
Defund the thought police
— Chris Best (@cjgbest) March 11, 2021
Now writers are curious whether being associated with Substack would damage their reputation over the long period. I’m
We believe that it is time for Substack to take pains and illustrate that the platform offers financial support to writers across the political spectrum and draws thick lines around targeted prejudice and harassment. On a side note, the platform should also hire a good head of communications and give all the founder’s Twitter accounts passwords.
The company should then move far away from the cultural war and move towards building products and services that generate more revenue for people, more than anyone else does. If Substack doesn’t do anything about it, someone else will start making a move towards the direction, and it may be Mark Zuckerberg.
As per a recent survey (18), more than 1 billion people worldwide use Facebook groups. It means that participating in the program would almost guarantee that one can grow his audience significantly. However, to the same point, there are also several dangers of these platforms.
The most significant one is that one can easily fall into the trap of total dependence on social media platforms. And experts don’t recommend it (19).
Either way, it is a win-win for Facebook, and it is not coming as a surprise to anyone.