Dialogue: Facebook vs. The New York Times

WARNING! The below is what might have been said based on the arguments, positions, and facts on both sides. It is fiction, but all facts are backed up.

FB: You don’t have readers.

NYT: I do.  

FB: You don’t have readers.  

NYT: I do have—

FB: You have skimmers.  

NYT: Skimmers?  

FB: You have skimmers.  And you know it.  

NYT: That’s—

FB: You know you have skimmers.  Look at the average page view length.  

NYT: We have—

FB: You have skimmers, mostly.  And then you have a few readers and then—--very very few engagers

NYT: That’s not—

FB: What?  

NYT: That’s not exactly accurate.  

FB: No?  

NYT: No.  

FB: Not exactly accurate.  But accurate still.  On Facebook it is accurate.  On your site?  

NYT: It’s…

FB: You wanna know my guess?  My guess is that it depends. 

NYT: It depends.  

FB: It depends on who’s reading.  On the audience and on the article. 

NYT: On the topic.  It depends on the topic, yes.  And to some extent, the writer. But engagement per story isn’t as important as engagement on the platform. We want people to go deeper, to build loyalty beyond one story.

FB: But here’s what I’m telling you—--

NYT: You’re telling me how to do my job.  

FB: No--—

NYT: You’re telling me what job to do—

FB: No.  I’m telling you that you’re doing a good job. Probably.  With what you have---with where The New York Times is right now, you’re probably doing a good job.  A solid site, without having to compromise your historic aesthetic, clean-looking, flush with multimedia…well, videos at least.  Though you could do more of those and you could do more with them, but…What I’m saying is: The New York Times is good on the web.  Good in the apps, too, I’m sure.  You’ve always been good at that.  

NYT: But…

FB: But you’ve got skimmers.  You’ve got skimmers on  Facebook who---

NYT: Facebook is skimmers.  That’s what it is, that’s who you have!

FB: We have 1.4 billion monthly active users.  We have the world.  

NYT: China?  

FB: We have this world

NYT: But you don’t have the Internet yet.  

FB: We are the Internet for many of our users.

NYT: How many?  

FB: Many more than read The New York Times.  

NYT: How many?  

FB: But yes, you’re right, we don’t have the full Internet.  We don’t have everything that we could to make it a full experience.  

NYT: You don’t have the full New York Times.  

FB: No.  

NYT: And you want it.  

FB: Let me show you something. This is one of your stories:  

NYT: In the newsfeed.  

FB: In the newsfeed this is one of your stories.  Picture, headline and the first few words. Sometimes a headline is enough.  

NYT: At The New York Times a headline is never enough.  

FB: “Fifty-Five Dead in Chilean Mine Collapse.”  Unless I know someone in a Chilean mine, I don’t need anything more than that.  Picture.  A few words.  Done.  

NYT: No.  

FB: No?  

NYT: No, because—

FB: Because there’s more to that story, I agree.  I agree!  But for things like that, for the “news-news”, that’s all people need to know.  But let’s say the picture’s particularly spectacular. Let’s say this story isn’t about miners, who we expect to die in mines from time to time.  Let’s say the story is about the ground above a mine, and this ground collapsed into it.  And on top of this ground, you had a school.  Or a hospital.  Or even better, a river.  And now you have the incredible image of an entire river pouring into this mine, diverted.  You have a waterfall plunging three hundred feet—

NYT: Meters.  It would be meters in Chile.  

FB: Three hundred meters!  Plunging three hundred meters into the Earth!  A whirlpool twisting down into the depths.  And then you have, further downstream, the river’s dried up.  You have boats sitting on the riverbed, you have piers peering over nothing, whole riverside communities suddenly riverlessThat’s a story!  And now I wanna click...

NYT: I want to click.  

FB: And count now after the click:  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Eight seconds for the page to load!

NYT: Anticipation.  

FB: Dead air.  You ever work in radio?  On the radio they have a term---

NYT: I know the term.  

FB: Dead air.  It’s the space between programming, the space between a question and an answer.  It’s static.  It’s broken.  It’s time for the listener to change the station.  It’s time for the listener to turn it off.  If you do it to them once they might wait, confused.  If you do it them twice they might change the station, annoyed.  But if you do it to them three times—-- 

NYT: You can’t.

FB: You can’t.  You can’t do it to them three times because they’ve learned their lesson.  

NYT: What are you saying?  

FB: I’m not saying anything.  

NYT: You’re complaining about—

FB: I’m asking you a question.  

NYT: Are you, now?

FB: Who runs digital for you at the Times?  

NYT: Who?  

FB: If the person who ran digital for you at the Times delivered a product—--a redesign, let’s say—--that crashed for one out of every five readers, would that be acceptable?  

NYT: If the person who ran digital…

FB: If your website crashed for twenty percent of readers, you’d fire the entire digital department. And that’s a fact.  

NYT: I don’t know that—

FB: That’s a fact.  But I’m sitting here and I’m telling you we have the numbers.  And something like that is happening every single time one of our users clicks on a story—--that compelling Chilean story.  They’re not making it to the page.  They’re not making it to the story.  Not even to skim.  What percent of your traffic is driven by Facebook referrals?  

NYT: I’m not—

FB: You’re not telling me?  Fifteen percent.  

NYT: Less.  

FB: Less—--yes!  Less, because that’s your total social sharing percentage—I know, I know!  So less than fifteen percent.  Less and less.  And so I’m asking you: is a failure of that magnitude acceptable?  

NYT: (pause) No.  

FB: No.  It’s not acceptable.  And we at Facebook agree.  We agree wholeheartedly.  

NYT: And so, wholeheartedly, you want the whole business, yes?  You want our whole business to—--

FB: We want the whole story.  Fifty five dead in Chilean Mine.  One sentence.  Two sentences.  All the sentences.  All the news that’s fit to print.  

NYT: On Facebook…

FB: On Facebook.  Yes. 

NYT: You want us to do it again...  

FB: What?  

NYT: With the Internet.  You want us to do it again.  Journalists.  To give it away.  To give away the store.  

FB: No.  

NYT: That’s what you’re asking.  That’s what you’re asking me right now.  You’re asking me to give you the headline and the picture and the whole damn story—to give away the whole goddamn store.

FB: No.  Don’t you get it?  You’re not the store.  We’re the store.  Facebook is the store.  We're like any other store that sells your paper to our patrons.  One billion patrons.  One billion papers.  In a stack at the door.  Two dollars a pop.  

NYT: Two dollars?  Can I hold you to that?  

FB: We want to sell your paper, just like anybody else.  

NYT: Except you're not like anybody else, now.  You're not like anybody ever.

FB: We're—--

NYT: You're a platform.  Nothing more.  You're a platform for people to stand on—to talk one to the next to the next, and you interrupt now and then their conversation.  You interrupt them with a word from the sponsor.  Oh, yes, congratulations on the new baby, that's such an intimate moment in your lives.  But before you continue with your intimations, I must ask—would you like to buy a baby carriage?  You've stepped into the middle of their lives and interrupted—like an advertisement in the middle of your phone call—could you imagine?  An advertisement on the same topic you've been talking about.  And yet somehow they accept it.  We accept it.  We accept our conversations and drama being sold for space—like actors.  We're all actors to you—but unlike actors, you don't pay us.  We pay you—with our attention.  

FB: How is that any different?  

NYT: What?  

FB: How is it any different from you?

NYT: What are you talking about?  

FB: You—--The New York Times—--you sell ads next to stories about serial killers, next to stories about terrorists.  You sell ads for cars next to car crashes.  And that's somehow higher in your mind?  To sell ads next to bad news instead of ads next to good?  

NYT: It's not how the story is framed, it's about who owns the story.  

FB: And you own the story about the serial killer, then?  

NYT: We wrote it.  

FB: You own it more than the serial killer?  

NYT: Are you saying serial killers should be paid for the ads we sell next to the story?  

FB: Why not, according to your logic?  Why not the killer—or the victims?  Why the writer?  

NYT: Because we wrote it.  

FB: You wrote it so it's yours?  

NYT: Yes. To an extent.  

FB: How does writing about it make it yours?  

NYT: Because the words are ours.  

FB: But words are just a vessel, symbols for conveying meaning.  You can sell words, sure.  But you could also sell the paper the words are printed on.  You could sell the venue the words are spoken in.  You could sell the space online where the words are transmitted.  You could sell the space on the servers and the systems and the billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure that it took to get that story framed.  

NYT: It's different.  

FB: Is it?  

NYT: It's different.  Materially, it's different. 

FB: How?  

NYT: You're saying that because you spent a lot of money on your website, somehow you own what I do on your website?  That's like saying Apple should own my writing because I wrote it on an Apple computer.  Or Bridgestone should own my car because they carried it along on their tires.  That's absurd and you know it.  

FB: If you walk into a restaurant, and you're talking at that restaurant—--

NYT: The restaurant doesn't own your conversation!

FB: I agree!  I agree! But they still own the restaurant!  And they have a right to speak over the PA system if they want, to tack an ad on the bulletin board if they want, to interrupt you in your meal if they want—--to try to sell you on dessert.  Facebook is a space, nothing more.  We take no claim of ownership on what you do in that space—but we do own the space, just like the restaurant.  And the only difference between our restaurant and all the others is that our restaurant is free for everybody to eat at.  Forever.  Starbucks may think of itself as that third place between work and home, but you still have to buy a cup of coffee to go there from time to time.  Not on Facebook.  It's free, unlimited coffee forever.  

NYT: And why are you so proud of that?  

FB: Why?  

NYT: Why are you so proud of the fact that Facebook is not willing to test its value with a price tag?  Just how many readers—I’m sorry, users—would stop using Facebook if you charged for it?  If you charged, for example, what we charged?  Our lowest tier is $7.99 a month—and we have close to a million paid digital subscribers.  And growing!  Growing 30,000 in this quarter alone!  What percentage of your subscribers—I’m sorry, users—would stop using if you charged for it?  

FB: Facebook is free not out of fear.

NYT: No?  

FB: No.  

NYT: Are you sure about that?  

FB: Facebook is free because we fundamentally believe that people should be able to connect with friends and those around them—--to connect and share—--regardless of how much money they have.  Because a world with all of us sharing makes all of us richer. Not just the few.  

NYT: Just the few?  

FB: Not just the few.  

NYT: And what’s your market cap, again?  

FB: We’re up above $200 billion.  

NYT: Two hundred billion…

FB: Two hundred and thirty billion, but that’s not the point.

NYT: And how few of your users see even a penny of that $230 billion?  

FB: That’s not the point.  The point is that free isn’t a business decision at Facebook—--it’s our mission.  It’s why we exist.  Facebook is free and always will be.

NYT: With a catch.  

FB: No catch.  

NYT: With the catch that you have to listen to the sales pitch.  Like a time share.     

FB: Look, We sell space just like—--

NYT: Just like us?  Yes, just like us!  You say that you're a store that will sell our newspaper.  But you're not a store.  You're just like us. you're the paper.  You're the paper and you want to print us for free.  

FB: Not free.  

NYT: You've been printing us for free and now you want more.  

FB: We've been printing little advertisements for you---links that take our users back to you---at no charge!  And there will never be a charge.  But because it's so hard to send our users to you—--because of that eight second delay, that dead air that makes it such a sucky experience for our users---because we care about our users and we care about you, too—we're here, right now, and we're asking you--I'm asking you: can you take a step in our direction?  Because it's so hard to send our users to you, can you send your content to us?  Can you send, not just your advertisements for your website---can you send your news to us?  

NYT: Sure.  

FB: Yes?

NYT: Two dollars a pop.  Just as you said.  

FB: Now listen—--

NYT: Two dollars a pop. 

FB: Okay, okay.  I get it.  And I agree---everyone agrees.  You deserve to be paid for your work.  

NYT: Say again?  

FB: You deserve to be paid for your work.  What?  

NYT: No, I just wanted to hear someone from Facebook say those words.  Go on.  I think you were about to say: "But..."

FB: No.  No "but."  You deserve it.  And we want The New York Times to succeed.  We like The New York Times.  We like news.  So we're not here to tell you how to run your business.  

NYT: What was all this, then?!  

FB: I'm here to listen.  How do you see this going?  

NYT: You're serious?  

FB: What would it take for us to be able to offer our users full, un-truncated versions of your stories?  

NYT: Two dollars a pop.  

FB: Seriously.  

NYT: I'm serious!  Look, we can't do this at a loss.  

FB: I'm not asking you to.

NYT: We can't do this for free and we can't do this at a loss and anything—anything less than we're making now is a loss.  

FB: It's that serious?  

NYT: I'm that serious.  We're not stupid.  We know you have a billion and a half readers, we know it.  And we know that people aren't always clicking through.  They're not all downloading our apps, they're not all bookmarking our website and they're not all subscribing.  Facebook is where people are, today.  Facebook and Twitter and Instagram—

FB: Which is Facebook.  

NYT: Good job on that, I know.  And WhatsApp, very good.  So we want to get in front of your readers; we want to offer a better product to your readers, and we're ready to do that—we are.  

FB: But..?  

NYT: But if we do, we're all in.  And you have to be ready for that.  

FB: We're ready.  

NYT: For all in?  Do you know what all in looks like at The New York Times?  Let me paint you a picture: Newsprint dries up—no one's buying.  We stop the presses.  Watches swallow phones, there's no more reading on mobile devices, our apps crash.  They're gone.  And then the walls go up—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat.  The web closes down, everyone's logged in and no one's online.  Not on the web as we know it.  Websites become what they're becoming: a portal to enter your password and nothing more. Everything is Facebook.  Everything is Twitter. Everything else is nothing.  NYTimes.com—nothing.  But outside, out in the real world, wars are waging. Voters voting. Companies polluting. Mines collapsing. We need reporters. On the ground. Gathering stories. Talking to those who no one talks to. Talking to those who need a talking to. But who are these reporters reporting to? Citizens. Just as before—just as always.  Citizens!  And where are these citizens sitting? Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp. When paper and print, and apps and online fall away—if they fall—we have to stand somewhere firm.  We have to succeed if all else fails.  We have to survive if you prosper.  All in?  All in is a question: if Facebook is all that's left, are we in trouble?  Are our 1,200 journalists safe?  Make me an offer that answers that question—positively—then our answer is yes.  Make me a deal that's worth it for The New York Times to go all in.  

FB: You want a safety-net.  

NYT: Not a safety-net, no.  We want a platform.  And that's what you're selling.  That's what you've built—or so you tell us.  

FB: A place to sell your papers, yes.  And do you see yourself still selling direct to users, or do you see ads as enough?  

NYT: You tell me.  Are ads enough?  

FB: Maybe.  Maybe they will be.  

NYT: Then maybe we'll make a deal.  Or maybe we won’t.  Sixty percent of our revenue comes from readers, not advertising. I'm open to running the numbers.  But you have to be open, too.  

FB: We are!  We are!  We want this to be successful.  We're open to all ideas.  

NYT: I'm not talking about open to ideas.  I'm talking about your platform.  You have to build a platform.  A true platform.  

FB: We have apps on Facebook.  

NYT: I'm not talking apps.  

FB: We have games.  

NYT: I'm not talking games.  

FB: What are you talking about, then?  A website?  You want a website?  

NYT: We want the space to explore new ways of storytelling.  New ways of engaging our users.  New ways that aren't limited to words or videos.  

FB: You want apps.  

NYT: We want control.  Control enough to test the limits of what it means to tell the news.  To gather the news.  To share insight.  "To make you see," as Kipling said.  

FB: What better platform could you possibly ask for? 

NYT: A platform that keeps getting better in the dimensions that matter to us.  Look at our website.  We're not just printing information anymore—little columns with headlines and graphs and pictures.  We're trying to build experiences.  Rich, multi-media experiences—  

FB: Like Snowfall.  

NYT: Snowfall.  And beyond.  Even our digital ad team is building Snowfall-caliber content.  So we need to know that we can get there, that we can get beyond Snowfall on your platform.  The news has to go beyond the Newsfeed.  It just has to.  And maybe that's a starting point, maybe that's where people are so that's where they click—but it can't be the destination.  It's scary as hell to rent space in your ecosystem, to live in that space—but if we rent the floor, we're not going to just sit in our little corner and type up stories for you.  We're going to rearrange the furniture.  We're going to knock down the walls.  You have to let us knock down the walls.  

FB: We will.  We can.  We're all in.

NYT: Of course, no one's going to believe it.  You know what they'll say—

FB: We have thick skin.  

NYT: They'll say: "are you kidding me? Knocking down walls?  You're walling yourself in!”  They'll say: “it's a trap!”  They'll say we're selling out.  Or worse, they'll say we're selling them out.  Why should The New York Times and National Geographic and BuzzFeed get special treatment from Facebook?  What about the local paper?  The local news?  What about the rest of journalism?  

FB: Someone has to be first.  

NYT: And last.  Someone has to last.  The story should challenge the reader, but it shouldn't be a challenge to read.  And that means going beyond reading.  It means—

FB: Facebook?  

NYT: Facing forward.