For years, Facebook has sworn by the power of algorithms to serve users a personalized mix of status updates, stories and photos. It’s what makes up the heart of the company’s premier product, the News Feed.
Soon, Facebook will add another approach to delivering the news: Via a new app, humans working for Facebook will start telling you which news stories you should be reading.
Over the past few months, Facebook has sought to hire contract editors to staff up Paper, the company’s unreleased, Flipboard-like news aggregation mobile app, according to two people familiar with the matter.
These editors, sources said, will oversee around ten different news verticals on a wide range of topics, curating a mix of the “best stories” within each particular subject area for users to see. The Paper verticals will be filled with stories picked entirely by these editors.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.
As Re/code previously reported, Paper is Facebook’s secret project which, like the buzzy mobile app Flipboard, aims to deliver Facebook users a mix of rich news stories from publications like the New York Times, along with Facebook status updates and Instagram photos. The app has been a pet project of Vice President of Product Chris Cox for years, having gone through various incarnations over time.
But with the addition of editors, the new app represents a drastic departure from Facebook’s data-driven approach to displaying content, which has historically relied on a mix of weighted signals from you and your network to determine what to show you. It also makes Facebook a direct challenger to existing news aggregation apps such as Prismatic, Trove and Flipboard.
Facebook’s efforts on Paper appear at a tough time for the company’s publisher relationships. Facebook recently said it plans to alter the way it ranks News Feed stories, favoring some “high-quality” content at the cost of other items. To date, Facebook hasn’t publicly elaborated what that means for publishers — which, as my colleague Peter Kafka previously reported, has given content companies pause.
Facebook editors jumping into the role of arbiters, then, could spook an already-wary publisher landscape — one which is increasingly relying on Facebook as a means of content distribution.
To be sure, the new Paper app is not a replacement for the News Feed. It is a standalone experience, and is in some ways subordinate to the News Feed. Sources said Paper editors can only select and feature stories that media outlets have already published on Facebook. So if, say, the New York Times hasn’t posted its latest story on President Obama to its Facebook Page, an editor cannot place that story inside of Paper.
Outside of presenting what Mark Zuckerberg calls “the best personalized newspaper in the world,” Facebook’s goal for Paper isn’t entirely clear. Sources indicated that the project is incentive for publishers to post more of their content to Facebook, thereby increasing the likelihood of a story being featured in the Paper app. And the more rich media content flows through Facebook, the more potential there is that users will spend more time on the service — and that, of course, means more eyeballs on ads.
Moreover, if Facebook can convince media outlets that it is the premier service for news distribution, the better the social network is positioned against Twitter, the microblogging network which has long trumpeted its supremacy as a real-time news dissemination tool.
All of this, however, is contingent upon Facebook getting users to download and embrace the new Paper app. And that, as history reminds, isn’t always a sure thing, even for the world’s largest social network.
Sources said Paper, a project that has been under construction for years, was slated to be released in January, but could appear in the coming weeks.
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