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Facebook publishing deal could bring newspapers in from the dark

Newspapers could soon be creating content exclusively for publication on Facebook rather than their own websites, according to reports.

The world’s largest social network has been in talks with a small group of publishers, including the New York Times, with an agreement said to be close.

The idea is for Facebook to offer traditional publishers access to its users and possibly a share of the ad revenue, in exchange for exclusive, high quality news content. The articles would exist, in full, within the Facebook environment rather than linking out to a news site.

A report in The New York Times, citing people close to the negotiations, said Facebook expected to start testing the new format in the coming months.

Power, influence and advertising dollars

The move would make a lot of sense for Facebook. Like other social media sites, it has been distancing itself from the idea that social media is a place for narcissists and over-sharers. Instead, Facebook wants to be part of the new media landscape, because that means more power, greater influence and much stronger ad revenues.

Twitter has made similar moves, creating tools specifically aimed at journalists and offering regular insights into major news events from its vast haul of user data. If you look at Twitter’s review of 2014 you’ll see a strong focus on real news stories, rather than the sorts of trivial content many people still associate with social media.

The New York Times remains a trusted source for news. Its website receives 70 million unique visitors every month according to ebizmba.com, which aggregates data from Alexa, Compete and Quantcast. That makes The Times the world’s most popular newspaper website, ahead of The Daily Mail, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.

But like all newspapers, The Times is facing tough trading conditions, with increased competition for advertising dollars and the challenge of monetising content when there is so much of it available for free.

In its full year results for 2014, the newspaper said the cost of workforce reductions and investment in new digital products had hit operating profit, which was down from USD $156.1 million in 2013 to USD $91.9 million.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see how a deal with Facebook would be attractive. Newspapers are sinking millions of dollars into their own websites and smartphone apps, with many, including The Times, experimenting with the idea of paywalls.

Facebook can offer an audience that goes well beyond even The Times’ digital subscriber base. Splitting the advertising dollars would also be appealing, given the amount of personal data Facebook holds on its members, which will always pull in advertisers.

From Dark Social to the social spotlight

If the proposed deal goes ahead it will represent a significant change in the relationship between newspapers and social media.

Right now, social sites like Facebook and Twitter send a huge amount of traffic to newspaper sites and other online news sources. A recent study showed that millennials, far from being disengaged and obsessed with their own lives, were big consumers of news content and relied on social media to find stories.

But a lot of news sites get a significant share of their social traffic from Dark Social. These are the links shared through instant messaging apps, some forums and other sources that analytics software can’t get at.

According to Alexis Madrigal, the journalist at The Atlantic who coined the phrase “Dark Social”, some news sites get us much as 69 per cent of their social referrals from these hidden sources.

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