A recently launched
program to help local publishers gain subscribers is proving to be a rare bright spot in the social-media giant’s often uneasy relationship with the news industry.
Since March, Facebook has held training sessions with executives from 14 midsize newspapers from around the U.S. to develop strategies for bringing in more paying customers via Facebook and beyond. It also gave each participating publisher $200,000 in grant money to put those strategies into play.
The program has been met with praise from the executives who have attended—a contrast to some meetings with publishers that have devolved into tense exchanges over political balance and the spread of misinformation.
Publishers have long been wary of Facebook’s outsize role in news dissemination and its commanding presence in the digital advertising market, which has played a considerable role in disrupting the economics of the news industry. In January,
executive chairman of
—which owns The Wall Street Journal—said Facebook should pay publishers fees similar to those cable distributors pay to television channels.
executive director of the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which helped develop the curriculum and is administering the grants, said it is in Facebook’s interest to help publishers. Lenfest owns the Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer was part of the pilot group.
“The truth is Facebook and local news organizations have a highly co-dependent relationship,” Mr. Friedlich said.
The pilot group included the Seattle Times, the Boston Globe, the Omaha World-Herald and the Denver Post. The initial program ran for 12 weeks, with three in-person gatherings in New York, in Austin, Texas, and at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., as well as weekly webinars and weekly individual training sessions with each publisher.
Sessions included developing strategies to boost reader engagement through things like targeted newsletters—whose recipients later get subscription offers—and how to use big news events as marketing opportunities. Facebook also brought in experts from areas outside the news field, including e-commerce companies such as Dollar Shave Club.
“It really got everyone to share their notes on how to drive subscriber acquisition in a smarter, faster and more efficient way,” said
director of subscription sales and retention at the San Francisco Chronicle. “This was not just some good PR for Facebook—we’ve already seen significant increases in newsletter and subscription signups from what we learned.”
The publishers submitted plans on how they would spend their grant money and what goals they hoped to achieve by the time the group reconvenes in January. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle plans to use its grant to test how best to use Google’s paid search and Adwords programs, and other digital advertising platforms to draw in customers, Mr. Rockwell said.
Facebook said it planned to expand the program to include a slate of nonprofit, membership-based news sites, as well as to bring the original group back for another series of sessions focused on subscriber retention. Facebook intends to invest an additional $4.5 million in support.
“We went into this not really knowing what kind of results we would get,” said
Facebook’s head of news partnerships. “It turned out to be very collaborative, and in the end the publishers said let’s keep going.”
Write to Lukas I. Alpert at email@example.com