David Chavern: Dear Facebook - an open letter

I want to commend you on your new "hard questions" initiative. The issues you mention are of central importance to not only your company, but also your users and the broader public - and it is an absolute good that you are wrestling with them. Too many businesses (like too many people) avoid difficult problems until it is too late.

If I may, though, I would like to add another hard question to your list: What is the role and value of news on Facebook?

We know certain things about news. First, people love it. The audience for hard news is larger than it has ever been  - both because of public interest and also because the internet makes it is more readily available to more people.

But news has the additional benefit of also being important. News isn't just content. People love baby animal photos and also have more access to them than ever, but our democracy doesn't rest on the quality of puppy pictures. The balance of our society really does rest on the quality of the news that people consume, and quality costs money. Free pictures and videos may be fun but free news is dangerous. A news ecosystem that is ultimately based upon "free" is a system that inherently favors Russian disinformation clickbait over real community reporting.

Facebook has an incredible and unique capacity to distribute news. That is also an absolute good. But with that capacity comes an obligation to ensure that the news delivered comes from credible sources, and that those sources are able to sustain their ability to produce quality news products. In short, Facebook must either come to grips with helping to sustain credible news organizations or admit that is actively working towards their destruction. Again, if your goal is to sustain a "free news" system that you are also implicitly supporting a "not real news" system.

Facebook has indicated a general interest in helping news publishers to get a better financial return for their product. A piece in the Wall Street Journal this week even indicated that at some vague and uncertain time in the future you might consider possible support for  - gasp - subscriptions! But this is all evolving extremely slowly for a company that is famous for experimenting and moving quickly. I know that Facebook is desperately worried about interfering with the user experience that they deliver, but I also know that the user experience at my local bar would be much improved if I never had to pay a tab.

The bottom line is that news is inherently and uniquely valuable and, as such, it must also be valued. If Facebook wants to make quality news available to its users then it also must work much harder to ensure that producers of that news can sustain their ability to make and deliver it.

• David Chavern is president and chief executive of News Media Alliance, USA

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