Rupert Murdoch may be right that Facebook should pay media companies. That doesn't mean it's going to happen.

  • Rupert Murdoch makes a fair point that Facebook would do right by the media industry by paying for content like cable companies do.
  • Facebook doesn’t have much incentive to listen.
  • The company is already reticent about being seen as a media company and is moving away from the news business.
  • Media companies don’t have a ton of leverage over Facebook or Google.
  • Plus the technological challenges involved in either getting paid or choking off Facebook are significant.

The newsrooms at the ‘old media’ Wall Street Journal and ‘digital native’ BuzzFeed may not see eye-to-eye on much, but suddenly their bosses have lots to bond over.

That’s because, in one way or another, both News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti believe that Facebook and Google aren’t giving news organisations a fair deal. They want them to pay up for news stories shared on the platforms.

In each case, however, it’s not clear whether any single news organisation has serious leverage against the duopoly, or, as Business Insider’s Nathan McAlone noted, the technical wherewithal to actually pull or block all of their content from either platform.

Still, it’s not crazy to think that Facebook, in particular, could and probably should pay publishers to distribute their content. But who says they care enough or see what’s in it for them?

Why should Facebook listen to Rupert Murdoch?

Murdoch doesn’t make any explicit threats in his fiery note. It’s easy to see why. What threat could he make? Could he pull down the New York Post’s Facebook page tomorrow? Would people notice or care? This isn’t like MTV going dark on a cable system in the 1990s, which would inevitably lead to fans calling their cable switchboard to complain.

More importantly, Murdoch couldn’t stop people from posting New York Post articles to Facebook, could it? I asked Gabriele Boland, manager of content strategy at the social media analytics firm News Whip, and she said she’s not sure how they would. Making links ‘not shareable’ is one potential way but that seems counterproductive. Publishers want people passing around their stories. One way to go would be for the New York Post to charge for everything,

“A news site could extremely limit its own Facebook traffic by “pay-walling” their content,” Boland said, noting that even a fully pay-walled property like the Financial Times still racks up tons of engagement on Facebook.

OK, what about the idea that Facebook needs good content, that it’s part of the reason people like hanging out there?

“The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services,” Murdoch wrote on Monday.

Maybe this is true. But if anything, the tech giant seems to want to make news go away on Facebook, rather the get further into bed with it.

Murdoch has talked tough about this before

Back in 2009, Murdoch talked about blocking all of his company’s news stories from Google search entirely. He had support in the “Google is bad for news” camp. Around that time, noted mogul Mark Cuban (“Shark Tank”) called Google a “vampire.”

There was even industry chatter – believe it or not – that a bunch of news organisations could ban together and pull their content from Google searches in favour or Microsoft’s Bing.

But alas, nobody went through with it, as it was likely way too scary to give up the traffic Google searches deliver.

The same kind of fears would be top of mind for anyone mulling a full Facebook boycott.

Here’s the case for paying publishers, besides being a nice thing for the world

If you think about it, an exclusive programmed, strategy is exactly what Facebook is trying to do with Facebook Watch, where only partner companies can upload video and some are being paid by Facebook to do so. Thus it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Facebook could do the same for news.

This kind of members-only approach could keep Facebook out of trouble. It would be an abrupt change, but what if you could only find content on Facebook from an approved set of limited, vetted partners?

This could be seen as a vital, pro-journalism, pro-democracy gesture by Facebook (which, you may recall, has recently had some unwanted meetings with Congress over its anti-democracy impact). And it could keep the company out of more fake news trouble in 2020.

Plus, Murdoch’s right. It really wouldn’t cost that much. “Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits,” he wrote. For a company that pulls in $US10 billion-plus in revenue a quarter, a few checks to some newspapers is pocket change for Zuckerberg.

The case against paying is that it makes Facebook a media company

Facebook is by nature open. It’s that Silicon Valley utopian ideal that makes Facebook Facebook. Do they really want to change that? “At our heart we’re a tech company,” COO Sheryl Sandberg told Axios last October.

After all, people like what they like, whether its fake news or mean stories about Trump. Who is Facebook to say they can’t share conspiracy theories or the like?

Sheryl sandbergAllison Shelley/Getty Images

Plus, does Facebook want to manage another few hundred publisher relationships on top of what it’s doing with Watch? At least with Watch, the promise is hitting Google’s YouTube where it hurts and ultimately stealing some TV ad budgets. Watch is a relatively small project (Facebook is spending about $US1 billion on it).

Becoming the Internet’s curated newsstand (Facebook Read anyone?) is a whole other level. It makes Facebook a media distributor much like Comcast. Which is exactly where it doesn’t want to be.

Lastly, paying a select group of publishers probably won’t do much for Facebook’s bottom line. And that’s usually the bottom line.

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