"We are going to continue to support and focus our efforts globally as we have been, but also really on local news," Brown tells TheWrap
When Facebook tapped former TV journalist Campbell Brown as VP of global news partnerships to help it build a bridge into the news industry in 2017, the social network company was facing many controversies and challenges. Brown sought to reshape the image of a platform that has been criticized over issues of misinformation and hate speech — and wasn't exactly on friendly terms with the news media business.
"I am proud to say that over the last four years, we have become one of the largest funders of journalism in the world, and I think we take that responsibility really seriously," Brown told TheWrap, noting that the Facebook Journalism Project had committed $600 million to news content since 2018 and plans to nearly double that amount in the coming years, to $1 billion.
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Her first task at Facebook -- which in June hit a $1 trillion market cap -- was to sit down with news publishers and hear about what they needed. "Facebook is a tech company, obviously, with a way of building products that didn’t really do it in conjunction with (publishers)," Brown said. "Working in partnership with the publishers really got us on a path to doing some things that were really transformative on the product side."
One of the biggest categories of spending will be paying news publishers to license their content in the news section. A lot of Facebook's funds go toward these direct payments to publishers, as well as for for video content hosted on Facebook Watch. Outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, News Corp and BuzzFeed were a part of those agreements, and the deals amount to millions for some. "Launching Facebook News is one of the things I am most proud of," Brown told TheWrap.
Facebook has also diverted millions into launching news-dedicated products and initiatives, providing grants to organizations, including the Pulitzer Center and Report for America, and hosting an Accelerator boot camp program where publishers can get their ideas funded and receive mentorship.
"We are going to continue to support and focus our efforts globally as we have been, but also really on local news," said Campbell, who got her start at local stations in Kansas and Baltimore. "I came out of local news. I was a local reporter for years, so it’s personally important to me," she said.
This year, Facebook News will continue expanding globally, first branching out to France and Australia. The company also just launched Bulletin, a newsletter product geared toward individual writers and journalists, with writers Malala Yousafzai, Malcolm Gladwell, Tan France and Erin Andrews among its initial recruits. Some writers were offered multi-year licensing deals, and Facebook is not taking a cut on their subscriptions at launch. Brown expects Bulletin to open up to more local journalists later in the year.
"We have focused so much of our attention on big news organizations that I think it’s time we look at journalism holistically and recognize that the individual writers and reporters are doing some really incredible work and doing it with depth and substance, and just finding an audience who’s equally passionate about the things they’re writing about," she added.
In her conversation with TheWrap, Brown discussed how the tech company plans to increase its content partnerships and give news organizations more ways to continue working with Facebook.
What was going on with media and news publishers when you started in 2017?
It feels like so long ago. I feel like we’ve done so much in the time that I’ve been here, and so much has changed in the industry more generally. COVID especially put real pressure on the news industry and pushed us to work even harder than we had been in trying to be there and figure out the best way to support news organizations and individual journalists.
What our long-term goal has been is trying to get more quality journalism on Facebook, and in addition to that, to try to ensure that there is a strong, profitable news industry. I am proud to say that over the last four years, we have become one of the largest funders of journalism in the world, and I think we take that responsibility really seriously. We are going to continue to support and focus our efforts globally as we have been, but also really on local news. I came out of local news. I was a local reporter for years, so it’s personally important to me. That’s going to continue to be a focus for us.
We’re planning about a billion more in the next three years, and we try to think of it in terms of products that we build, the programs that we can launch to support publishers and then the partnerships that develop that can really help drive value for our partners in the news industry.
With the larger publishers, that was probably our focus in the beginning, is really engaging with the big publishers and … trying to change the way we communicate with each other. Facebook is a tech company, obviously, with a way of building products that didn’t really do it in conjunction with (the news industry). One of the first things we did via FJP was really sit down with news partners and have a real conversation about what was important to them and how we could ensure that we’re building products in a way that could bring them value. Working in partnership with the publishers really got us on a path to doing some things that were really transformative on the product side.
Launching Facebook News is one of the things I am most proud of. And we’re now taking Facebook News global. We launched in Germany and the U.K. We are, hopefully this year, going to get France and Australia done. I’m really proud of that. And most recently we announced Bulletin -- which is our effort to really support this ecosystem of individual writers and journalists. We have focused so much of our attention on big news organizations that I think it’s time we look at journalism holistically and recognize that the individual writers and reporters are doing some really incredible work and doing it with depth and substance, and just finding an audience who’s equally passionate about the things they’re writing about.
Bulletin is in its very early days, obviously. We have a lot to learn, and we’re excited about the cohort of writers and reporters that are working with us in this early stage to try and figure it out. I think in the fall, it’s going to hopefully open up a whole new opportunity for journalists at the national level, but also at the local level. Because we really want to make sure these tools work for local reporters who are making a market when there’s not even a local newspaper or a local news outlet and they’re able to use these tools to cover their community and ensure that the people of those communities get the news that they need.
How are you going to allocate the next $1 billion?
One big piece of it is the direct payments we make to publishers; the content deals we do with publishers for Facebook News, the Watch deals we have done around video. We’re doing this globally, so the content piece of it is huge.
We spend a lot on our Accelerator program. I’m pushing us to do more and more on that front because it’s been so successful. It’s almost like a boot camp, where we work with publishers and try to figure out how to solve problems with them that include on Facebook but also off-platform. We have a cohort of larger publishers and others with smaller ones. It’s around 75% focused on local news.
The goal is to help news organizations build sustainable models that can be a part of a long-term solution. They’re all funded through Facebook Journalism Project, and it really is a hands-on way for us to bring people together and work together with them. I would say that we learn as much as they have from these programs -- and just the return that we get, whether it’s measuring what they’re seeing in terms of revenue and growth, but also what they’re conveying to us anecdotally -- is one of our most successful investments, I think.
In the early days of FJP, we tried a lot of things. We were just throwing out ideas and seeing what could potentially work. Not everything did, so we learned a lot along the way and Accelerator programs really have turned into our most successful things. We do trainings and programmatic work locally to just help people understand how to use Facebook better, to improve monetization, to improve their distribution across the platform. That’s ongoing.
A lot of it is just around partnerships. We fund great organizations that are doing incredible work for journalism that we don’t have anything to do with, but we want to support them. Report for America is a great example of that, which is putting reporters in newsrooms around the country. We work really close with the Local Media Consortium. There are a number of local media trade organizations that have become really helpful to us in helping to understand where the greatest need is and how we can distribute funds where they’re most needed.
We have a green light from Mark (Zuckerberg) to continue launching as fast as we can in different markets. That really scaling Facebook News into some of the growth markets especially I am super excited about. We’ll see where Bulletin goes, but I’m super excited about the potential there. I think that could be a huge investment for us if we get it right and learn to make it work.
How many content deals exist? Talk about how you work with publishers.
A lot. Taking a step back, we have deals in the U.S., in every country where we have Facebook News. We have deals in place with all the major publishers and many of the local and regional publishers in those markets. There are some countries where we haven’t yet launched Facebook News but we do deals to get additional content from publishers beyond just what they’re putting on the platform.
For example, if a publisher has a lot of their content behind a paywall, then we would, in some cases, pay to have access to that content from behind the paywall so that users have a better experience when they’re consuming news. We try to focus on high-quality news to improve the quality of news overall on Facebook.
That was kind of the impetus for Facebook News, is ensuring that there’s a destination for it and people can find it. They’re not just scrolling through their news feed and stumbling upon this or that post from a very reputable news organization and then, at times, I’ll get a post from my crazy uncle that is sharing some of the articles from who knows where. We really wanted to create a destination that was devoted to news organizations that are putting boots on the ground and doing the real work of journalism.
How are you thinking about investing in the future of newsrooms and journalists?
To me, that’s where the Accelerator program can expand and can really tackle those new challenges. To use Bulletin as an example, we have a lot of reporters and writers who aren’t that savvy with regard to social media or our platform in particular. We’re going to be doing a lot of trainings to help them really develop a following so that they can increase their subscriptions. The way that Bulletin is set up, they open that and take that with them anywhere.
The training programs are really different depending on the market and depending on the need. We try to adapt them to whatever the publishers need in a given market. So in Argentina, there was a real desire to improve the quality of video content and whether it would improve monetization. In Argentina it may be videos, in other places, it may be marketing -- that’s a big question publishers come to us with with the accelerators.
Talk about the tension between publishers and the media. Have those relationships improved?
Look, I understand this perception. I think it’s easy to look at the state of journalism from a business perspective, and the state of tech companies right now, and make these broader assumptions. When I started four years ago and met with publishers, a lot of the conversation started with this hard truth of, “You can’t uninvent the internet, you have to adapt.” Now the conversation has evolved because, as we talked about, publishers understand the need to diversify revenue streams and go bigger on things like subscriptions.
So, I think when it comes to improving on the reputational front, it’s just putting in the time and the work. Helping publishers understand what we’re trying to do, where we think we can add real value and expertise, and then working together to help them make more money both on and off of Facebook.
Antoinette Siu previously worked at Facebook contractor Milestone Technologies.