In June, Facebook’s head of news partnerships announced that the social network was going to fund news shows for its Watch video service. “Watch is the destination on Facebook where people come together around video,” said Campbell Brown in a blog post. Flash-forward to today, with Digiday reporting that two-thirds of Watch’s news programming will not be renewed.
You’ll be forgiven for not being familiar with Facebook Watch. A survey last summer found that a full 50 per cent of adult users had never heard of the video service. And at the end of last year, Facebook itself bragged that “more than 400 million people” — or just over one in six of its global users — were watching at least one minute of Watch each month. Nevertheless, Facebook remains publicly bullish about its latest foray into video news.
“We’re going to continue experimenting with news publishers in Watch and sharing what we learn,” Shelley Venus, Facebook’s video lead for news partnerships, told Gizmodo in an email. “We’re partnering with these organisations to build sustainable video businesses, where Facebook can be one part of their overall strategy.”
When Facebook first announced funded news programming on Watch last year, it rolled out with eight shows from partners like ABC News, CNN, FOX News, and Univision. Since then, it has expanded to 21 total shows, according to Digiday. It’s unclear which will make the cut. A spokesperson wouldn’t share any specific details on which news programs would be renewed in Watch, noting that show contracts vary.
Facebook has had a checkered relationship with news. Mark Zuckerberg asserted that the social network was “not a media company” in 2016. “At our heart we’re a tech company; we hire engineers,” Sheryl Sandberg told Axios that same year, according to Wired. “We don’t hire reporters, no one’s a journalist, we don’t cover the news.”
But the company has almost comically contradicted these declarations. Also in 2016, a Pew Research Center study found that 66 per cent of Facebook users said they got news on the website.
One of Facebook’s most spectacular failures to become a source of quality news doesn’t look too dissimilar to its Watch aspirations. The social network spent over $70 million paying both publishers and celebrities to create Facebook Live videos, only to de-emphasise much of that content and not renew many of those deals, leaving misguided publishers in the dust.
It’s hardly surprising that news programming on Watch might not have lured in the masses. For starters, unlike many Facebook videos, these shows seem to mostly exist in a separate tab with a nondescript icon. And Facebook Watch itself launched as what might best be described as a chum box of moving images. While the company has secured some more quality content since it first rolled out in September of 2017, it’s still lacking any prime real estate on the main Facebook platform. One of my colleagues didn’t even know Facebook Watch had news programming until today.
What’s clear is that Facebook still doesn’t really know what the hell it’s doing when it comes to being a sought-after news source for — and I can’t emphasise this enough — quality content.