If Facebook builds a personalized newspaper, will it suffer the same fate newspapers have?

Newspaper

In a presentation on Thursday about the latest updates to the Facebook news feed, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly used the metaphor of a newspaper, saying the giant social network wants to build “the best personalized newspaper” for its users. This struck some as an odd choice: why would Facebook want to associate itself with something as antiquated as a newspaper? If you stop thinking about the “paper” part of that term, however, what Facebook has in mind makes a certain amount of sense — all it has to do now is avoid the same kind of disruption that drove newspapers to the brink.

As media theorist Clay Shirky has pointed out, the purpose newspapers originally served was to aggregate a wide range of information for readers who couldn’t get access to that information in any other way. A newspaper collected everything from news of events in far-off countries to weather reports, from horoscopes and comic strips and classified ads to cooking columns and political analysis. Around the turn of the century or so, this qualified as a breakthrough information-delivery technology.

Facebook wants to recreate the newspaper

We all know what happened next: first radio news and then television news ate into the market that newspapers used to have to themselves, and finally the internet came along to deliver the coup de grace. The ability to distribute information around the world at virtually zero cost disrupted what was left of the virtual monopoly that most newspapers relied on, and the social web — and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” it unleashed — has accelerated that process even further.

Now, the functions a newspaper used to perform have been dis-aggregated, unbundled and dispersed: classified advertising is handled by services like Craigslist and eBay, political analysis has been taken over by dedicated sites like Politico and Talking Points Memo, networks like CollegeHumor and BuzzFeed fulfill the entertainment function that comic strips used to provide, and real-time news of all kinds increasingly arrives via Twitter — as well as photo and video-sharing services like Instagram and YouTube.

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In a sense, Facebook has been trying to put much of this content back together for some time now. It has reached out to news companies to create things like “social news reader” apps (although that seems to have backfired rather badly), and it has tried to make the news feed a one-stop shop for users who want to find out not just what their friends and families are up to, but what brands or topics they are interested in are doing.

Facebook is doing this for much the same reason that newspapers did: because it makes an appealing package for advertisers. And the social network has a leg up on its legacy competitors in a number of ways, including the fact that it can target users much more precisely than newspapers ever could, based on any number of factors such as their interests, age or location. In other words, Facebook has a far better chance of becoming a newspaper than newspapers have of becoming a social network.

But being a newspaper has its drawbacks

Despite all those strengths, however, Facebook is in fundamentally the same position as newspapers and other traditional media outlets have been for years — namely, trying to aggregate enough interesting content together so that it can appeal to as many eyeballs as possible, and then sell access to those eyeballs to advertisers. And it has done an incredible job of doing this, racking up more than a billion users and levels of engagement that newspapers can only dream of. But it is still a middleman, just as newspapers were.

And the appeal of Facebook and other networks isn’t the only thing that has helped drive advertisers away from newspapers. Brands have also realized that the same media disruption that is killing newspapers gives them the tools to compete with the media outlets they used to rely on — by becoming publishers in their own right, creating their own newsrooms and “brand journalism,” and promoting sponsored content on new-media networks such as BuzzFeed (something we’ll be talking about at paidContent Live in New York on April 17). In other words, Facebook is not the only game in town.

Some prominent advertising experts — including Sir Martin Sorrell of the massive marketing conglomerate WPP Group — aren’t convinced that Facebook is even that useful for advertising, since they see it primarily as a social network designed for entertainment. And the more Facebook tries to adapt its newsfeed so that it becomes more appealing for advertisers, the more likely it is to irritate users who feel their feed is being tweaked and filtered in ways they don’t really understand.

In the end, Facebook may succeed in building the world’s best personalized newspaper — but doing this may not be as valuable as the company or its shareholders might have hoped.

Images courtesy of Flickr user Arvind Grover

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