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The Great Facebook News Paywall

Are paywalls the answer? I'm not convinced they're a panacea, but they do offer up alternative revenue streams for publishers who are in desperate need of new (or old) solutions. Given the current state of media, it's tough to argue against paywalls as a partial solution, that's for sure.

But, what about a news paywall implemented and managed by Facebook? Word on the street has Facebook, in partnership with an extensive list of publishers, gearing up to wall-off news and offer subscription access once readers reach a certain article threshold.

Brown said Facebook would begin testing a subscription-based news product in October, which will direct users to publishers’ homepages where they can purchase digital subscriptions, adding that the feature’s paywall will make access to those publishers’ content subscription-only after users have accessed ten articles

It appears, at least according to early reports and unnamed sources, that the technology will be built on top of Facebook's Instant Articles technology. That's an interesting spin on the old "paywall" arguments we're used to reading about these days. It certainly paves the way for some interesting conundrums and legalities.

There's the antitrust angle with all these publishers working together. There's the reality that Facebook is quickly becoming a publishing house, and instead of acting like a technology company it's now acting as a gate keeper of both information and the news, giving the technology company the ability to determine exactly who qualifies for paywall revenue and who doesn't. There's also the long-term danger that news is being homogenized and consumers are quickly forgetting exactly who they're getting the news from every day.

It's easy to see how these decisions play out favorably for Facebook (the company is quickly doing to the news what Google did to search), but what exactly do publishers stand to gain from giving Facebook control of their paywalls, and then letting Facebook scrub all brand recognition from their content?

Take the news recently published in NiemanLab as a case in point:

Just 37 percent of users who came from search, and 47 percent of those who found a story via social media, could correctly name the news organization that published it (2 days later). By comparison, 81 percent of users who directly arrived on a story could later recall where it was published.

Increasingly, people have no idea where the news they're reading is coming from. This erodes brand trust as consumers begin to confuse exactly who's responsible for the content that's making it to their eyeballs.

There's one caveat, however. Apparently, younger generations are finally due some credit. "Users under 35, who are typically much more fluent in social media and the Internet than their elders, were much more adept at remembering a story’s source than older users."

When it comes to platforms, are publishers in such dire straights that giving Facebook control of a paywall is the best step forward? I refuse to believe that.

By Joshua Schnell

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