Why Meta Turned Away from the News Industry

In 2017, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg initiated critical discussions to enhance the credibility of news on the platform.

by Faruk Imamovic
SHARE
Why Meta Turned Away from the News Industry
© Getty Images/Alex Wong

In 2017, Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg initiated critical discussions to enhance the credibility of news on the platform. These talks revolved around two main strategies: either acquiring an established, trusted news organization or creating a news outlet from scratch.

At the time, Facebook, which later rebranded as Meta, was dealing with significant fallout from its involvement in the 2016 US presidential election. The platform had been manipulated for political purposes, contributing to Donald Trump's election. Initially dismissive of Facebook's political influence, Zuckerberg's stance shifted significantly by 2017.

In a memo from that year, Zuckerberg emphasized Facebook's responsibility to its users and the news industry. "Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it," he wrote. "There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable."

Build or Buy: The Big Decision

The core question Zuckerberg faced was whether to build a news outlet or buy an existing one. The Associated Press emerged as a top candidate for acquisition, seen as a way for Facebook to have its own wire service. However, the idea lost momentum due to anticipated regulatory challenges and concerns about public perception.

Alternatively, Zuckerberg considered funding news through his philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. This idea was also discarded due to concerns about using a charitable foundation to address what was seen as a Facebook problem.

Discussions about creating a Facebook-owned news outlet also hit a wall, partly due to fears of public backlash. Despite exploring various avenues, Zuckerberg eventually decided that the complexities and potential controversies surrounding news media were not worth the trouble.

A Deteriorating Relationship

The sentiment within Meta shifted dramatically over the next few years. By the end of 2019, Zuckerberg's view of Facebook's relationship with the news industry had soured significantly. This change in perspective coincided with the Australian government's introduction of the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC). The NMBC required tech companies like Facebook and Google to negotiate payment deals with news publishers.

Internally, dealing with news media transitioned from a minor annoyance to a major financial concern. "Australia alone was now going to cost us about $100 million a year," a former Meta employee recounted. The realization that other countries might follow suit turned this into a multi-billion dollar issue.

Why Meta Turned Away from the News Industry
Why Meta Turned Away from the News Industry© Getty Images/Anna Moneymaker
 

The Australian Standoff

The passage of the NMBC in 2021, viewed by many within Meta as orchestrated by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, intensified tensions. Despite initial negotiations with Australian officials, Zuckerberg decided to block news on Facebook in Australia. This decision was reversed after further talks, but the incident marked a significant turning point.

Meta's annual bill to Australian publishers reached approximately $100 million. However, this expenditure did little to ease tensions or improve relations with the media. Meta's approach hardened, and by 2023, news consumption on Facebook in Australia had plummeted by 80%.

The Global Impact

The Australian experience set a precedent. When Canada passed a similar law, Meta quickly blocked news content on Facebook and Instagram. The company's strategy became clear: if pressured by news organizations, it would simply eliminate news content from its platforms.

This decision marked a stark departure from Facebook's earlier attempts to support the news industry. Internal support for news initiatives dwindled, and by late 2022 and 2023, most of Meta's news team had been laid off or had left. The Facebook Journalism Project was effectively dead, and tools like CrowdTangle, which provided performance insights to publishers, were shut down.

The Final Break

Meta's disengagement from the news industry reflects a broader trend within the company. Executives like Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram and Threads, have made it clear that their platforms are now focusing on less news and political content. The algorithms on Facebook and Instagram prioritize "unconnected content," meaning users are less likely to encounter news.

"Everything the news team built was killed," said a former high-level Meta employee. "It was a full turnaround from massive budgets to fund news to everything being essentially turned off one day."

Reflections on a Fraught Relationship

The decision to step back from news was driven by both financial considerations and a desire to avoid further regulatory and public relations challenges. The news industry has struggled for decades to adapt to the digital age, and while platforms like Facebook have been blamed for siphoning off advertising revenue, the relationship was always complex.

Post-2016, Facebook's acknowledgment of its role in spreading misinformation led to initiatives aimed at supporting journalism. However, these efforts were overshadowed by ongoing controversies, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the January 6 Capitol riots, and the genocide in Myanmar.

"You'd go into a meeting with a TV network or a news company and they would just tell us what assholes we are for an hour," a former Meta employee remarked. Even substantial financial support through the News Accelerator Program and direct deals with publishers did little to mend relationships.

Zuckerberg's personal engagement with the media, initially driven by a genuine interest in solving the industry's problems, waned. As Meta shifted its focus, the company's involvement with news dwindled, marking a significant chapter in the evolving relationship between tech giants and the media.

Facebook Mark Zuckerberg
SHARE