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By Scott Jacobs

On the eve of its 10th anniversary, Facebook came out with a new app for the iPhone called Paper that I’m afraid I might come to love.

It arrives on the scene just as the tech gurus are asking how Facebook can build on its invention of the social network, or whether we all will move on to the next new thing. I’m not alone in feeling a little Facebook fatigue. After wasting too much time scrolling through too many ads, suggested posts, family photos and cute animals on my news feed, I seem to be inundated by everything except news, leading me to believe most of my friends have too much time on their hands, and the mere act of reading their posts makes me just as much an idler, in a sort of guilt by association way.

The Facebook Juggernaut

There’s no doubt Facebook has become a behemoth on the Internet. Its worldwide membership tops 1.26 billion users a month. They spend an average of 11.5 minutes a day on the site (roughly 16% of the time they spend on the Internet), and over 680 million of them do this on mobile devices. They upload 350 million photos a day, share 4.75 billion posts, and have an average of 1500 items every day to peruse on their personal “news feed.” (These and other fascinating Facebook facts can be found on Digital Marketing Ramblings.)

Whatever the new definition of news is, there is no doubt Facebook is a major player in its dissemination. After its acquisition of Instagram in 2012, Facebook vastly increased the presence of photos and videos on its user pages. With last week’s purchase of WhatsApp, it has now extended its social network into the fertile delta of instant messaging between friends.

On the face of it, the introduction this month of Paper as a stand-alone mobile phone app seems incongruous. Won’t that cut into the number of people who get their news from their Facebook friends (30 percent)? One can only hope so. Facebook sure does.

The End of “Likes”

Facebook has come a long way since it made its money by targeting ads at you based on the rudimentary “likes” you give to various items in your news feed. The tools for monitoring your preferences are so sophisticated these days, you provide that data simply by letting Facebook track your behavior as you read interesting articles, message friends, or send funny pictures – as long as you do it through a Facebook controlled social network.

It’s no surprise then that the company is splitting up its domain into more definable pieces. A Facebook account today is as ubiquitous as a social security number – and just as profitable. Facebook doesn’t use it anymore to sell you a product. It is selling you as a product to advertisers who can use that granular data about your interests in various forms (not just Internet ads)  to market you. So the more Facebook understands your tastes, the more ways it has to observe your personal behavior, and the more it can charge for that information.

A Graphic-Oriented Newspaper

That said, Paper is an elegant way for Facebook to see how you like to get your news. It breaks up the monotony of the old print-oriented news feeds with a graphic interface that divides your small screen into a cover photo and a table of contents––more like a deck of cards––below that you can swipe through quickly to find items of interest.

It takes a bit to get it set up, but the installation comes with a well-designed tutorial that guides you through the set-up, the swipe gestures and range of content you can access.

By default, your Paper opens with selected stories from your regular Facebook news feed. Then, from a list of 20 news categories, you choose the categories you are interested in. Think of them as newspaper sections. (I chose “Headlines”, “Enterprise”, “Creators”, “Exposure”, “Ideas”, “LOL”, and “Tech”.) I can’t tell you right now how Facebook is salting the deck––whether by friend recommendations, algorithms, human editing, or some combination of all three––but in any given category, the range of stories is impressive.

Most impressive is Facebook’s decision to lead the display of stories with a graphic. Photos, when available, take precedence over copy. And one of the cool news tricks in Paper is the ability to pan across a photo by slowly twisting your iPhone back and forth to see the details in an enlarged version.

Easy To Use

The navigation between all this content is intuitive. In the table of contents for each section, you swipe back and forth to see what’s there. If something catches your eye, you swipe up to have it fill the screen. If you want to return to the browse mode, you swipe down. Want to change categories, swipe the top half of the screen sideways.

With just a few easy-to-learn gestures, you can effectively parse your Paper feeds into things you are interested in, and parse it again into things you are really interested in. The double filter gives you an easy way to see what you want to see (with Facebook looking over your shoulder) without the burden of wading through the non-news in your news feed like where your friend ate breakfast, the song she woke up to this morning, her preparations for the polar bear plunge––or, for now, advertising.

It’s a precursor of news to come.

The Drawback

But as enticing as the interface is, Facebook Paper is still just another news aggregator.  The graphic-driven interface suggests how other newspapers might adapt their content for mobile display, and the format covers a lot of ground, but Paper doesn’t answer the underlying problem in journalism today: who pays for it.

Marc Andreessen, progenitor of Netscape and now a top tier Silicon Valley tech investor, wrote what amounts to an extended tweet on his website just after Paper was released suggesting we may be entering “a new golden age of journalism.”

“I am more bullish about the future of the news industry over the next 20 years than almost anyone I know,” he wrote. “You are going to see it grow 10X to 100X from where it is today. That is my starting point for any discussion about the future of journalism. Here’s why I believe it, and how we will get there.”

A Seismic Change

In the heyday of modern journalism (roughly 1946 to 2005), Andreessen contends that newspapers and the broadcast news operations thrived on their monopoly/oligopoly control of distribution. When the Internet blossomed, their presses, news trucks and licenses to broadcast over the airwaves became instantly obsolete. The barriers to enter the news business disappeared. Bloggers started publishing online; video compression advanced to the point where anyone can post a cellphone video on YouTube; and Facebook, yes, encouraged people to find their news through their friends network.

Instead of fighting the future, Andreessen argues, news organizations should adopt the model. “For better or worse (and maybe both), print journalism is converging in technique and quality towards blogs and Wikipedia,” he writes. In the short run, this is undermining both subscription and ad revenues. In the long run, he believes it will drive some news organizations to provide deeper, higher quality coverage, and others to embrace the new volume of readers. Maybe America doesn’t need 15 major news organizations covering political conventions wall-to-wall, he suggests. Maybe printer and reporter unions, with their pensions, are a thing of the past. Maybe the “creative destruction” inherent in capitalism will produce something new: news from more sources, who make less in the short run, but benefit because the Internet expands their audience 100 fold while their revenues per story fall only 10.

Who Pays?

There’s a lot of hooey in Andreessen’s analysis. He suggests a number of new sources of revenue in the news business that strike me as stopgap measures: crowdfunding, philanthropy, seminars, ad-sponsored content, and a new paid-tier for premium reporting. He also has a long range idea that, no surprise, involves Bitcoins, another subject on which he has a few opinions.

“As the consumer use of Bitcoin scales up for transactions, it becomes easy to ask for small amounts of money on a per-story or per-view basis with low or no fees,” he writes.

Andreessen values websites like Politico, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, Pro Pubica and the London-based Guardian. They offer a path on the Internet for news to become profitable again: cut costs, increase readership, and create new revenue sources. But the examples he cites are needles in a haystack that is fast collapsing.

A “News Tax”

Online news aggregators have been around for a long time. The first was the Drudge Report, easily dismissible for its lurid origins (although it still draws 120 million viewers a month). Facebook Paper is a greater threat to journalism.  A smart, graphically-enticing way to look at the news every day from every source you ever wanted to see, for which you––and they––pay nothing.

It strikes me that Andreessen is right in thinking the Internet has knocked the underpinnings out from under traditional journalism because it supplanted the old distribution networks. So if the money in journalism lies in the distribution, why not use his Bitcoin model to charge Facebook, Yahoo and the other news aggregators micro fees for the content they are distributing?

They are, after all, just using the news to collect information on you. It would be, essentially, just another cost of doing business. Call it a use tax, or a “news tax” levied against the companies, not the readers, for the right to monitor your reading habits.


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