Publishers stop Facebook ad spending over policy that treats publishers as political advertisers

Facebook’s new ad-labeling policy has come under fire from publishers who are concerned that their news articles will be treated as political advocacy ads, and at least two — The Financial Times and New York Media — have suspended their paid media spending on Facebook in response to the policy.

Facebook has been under intense pressure over the spread of misinformation on the platform that bubbled up during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the policy is part of its response. But some news publishers spend on Facebook to spread awareness of their articles, and in the case of subscription-driven publishers, the hope is that some of that traffic will convert to paying readers. Industry association the News Media Alliance argued that the Facebook policy would label and archive paid news articles from publishers the same as political ads and asked for established news organizations to be exempt from the policy.

Facebook scheduled a conference call with reporters today to discuss the policy. Its executives have said Facebook recognizes that news about politics is different and was committed to finding a way to distinguish news from non-news content in the archives, but didn’t give specifics or a timeline.

Some publishers also have expressed concern over the requirement in Facebook’s policy that advertisers verify their identity — a stipulation that publishers say would pose liability risks for the publishers’ employees.

“We strongly believe to conflate news with advocacy is a very dangerous direction to take,” said Jon Slade, the FT’s chief commercial officer. “There’s also a lack of clarity around the liability.”

“For the time being, New York Media is pausing its paid marketing on Facebook for content and brand promotion unless we’re certain that it can’t be construed as political, and thus subject to Facebook’s ad archive disclosure requirements as we understand them,” a company spokesperson said. “We object to any grouping of quality news publishers with political advocacy organizations and propagandists, and believe it would impede our ability to serve our journalistic mission. We hope that Facebook will find an appropriate solution for quality news publishers.”

“This issue hits everybody in the news business,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance. “I don’t know what working with individual publishers means because there is no individual solution. They always have this divide and conquer instinct, especially when it comes to news publishers. Why would they prefer to work individually with publishers? I have 2,000 news organizations in my network. They’re not working with all of them individually, certainly.”

The ads policy is just one front on which publishers are wrestling with Facebook. Facebook said it would favor news from high-quality publishers, but publishers have questioned its methods for defining such quality. Facebook has been testing a subscription tool for publishers, but the test has been limited and subject to restrictions. And of course, publishers continue to wonder if they’ll ever make any meaningful revenue from distributing their content on the platform.

Suspending paid traffic activity isn’t without risk. Publishers have been gradually getting less and less organic reach for their editorial content than they used to from Facebook. The trend intensified in January when Facebook said it would de-emphasize news posts in the news feed. But the platform is still a crucial source of traffic for them. Slade said the FT would look to redirect its Facebook spending elsewhere to make up for any decline in traffic it expected to see from Facebook.

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