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November 27, 2023

Facebook subscriptions: Could Meta still be a friend for publishers?

One publisher trying out subscriptions on the platform thinks it could benefit others too.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Facebook owner Meta has been “unfriending” news for more than two years, ending a long period of wooing the publishers who create much of the content shared by its users.

But while Meta may have stopped giving grants to publishers and sharing ad revenue with them, it may yet hold the key to selling online subscriptions for some titles.

Pulman’s Weekly News, a small newsbrand based in Axminster, Devon, now has more than 500 subscribers (of 1,700 Facebook followers in total) who pay £3.49 a month, less than a month after turning on Facebook subscriptions.

This suggests a total of at least £1,745 monthly from Facebook alone (Meta has said it is not taking fees on these transactions until at least the end of 2024.)

Owner Duncan Williams said: “I have always been an advocate of utilising Facebook and there is much good sense in being in the centre of today’s most popular digital arena, which is where the majority of our audience and readers already have account access, rather than expecting readers to create separate accounts on a standalone platform or paywall system.”

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Williams has run Pulman’s Weekly News, founded in 1857, since 2018 when it closed in print. He previously made headlines when he bought West Country newspaper series View From for £1 two weeks after it was closed by by the previous owner but ended up being ruled personally responsible for hundreds of thousands owed to the group’s former employees and forced into bankruptcy.

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Despite this experience Williams remains in local news and described working on Pulman’s as “very much a labour of love”.

“To be honest, my own family think I am crazy,” he said. “My younger brother has made a fortune in banking and thinks I am quite mad putting all my money into local media. But I still have a belief in this industry, and I always will.”

Pulman’s is also funded by a combination of Facebook advertorials, e-newsletters and providing social media design and management services for local businesses. Williams supplements it with his own freelance journalism and creating commercial videos for social media advertising.

Facebook subscribers to the Pulman’s page receive access to a dedicated subscriber discussion group, exclusive posts, videos including live broadcasts, photos and polls, a subscriber badge next to comments, and five highlighted featured comments a month on live videos.

Subscriber perks on Pulman's Weekly News Facebook page
Subscriber perks on Pulman’s Weekly News Facebook page

Williams believes Facebook groups, often maintained by people prominent in their communities, are where many people now turn to for their local news in the absence of having reporters for every town and village. He described groups as “essentially the new local newspaper”.

A Charitable Journalism Project report published last year noted that Facebook was “by far the most important” social media service for local news information and that local pages and groups filled a gap in many communities. One focus group participant in Lewisham cited their local group and said it is the first place they look and “a lot of it’s trash to be honest, but a lot of it’s very useful”.

Williams feels that now a Facebook page “is actually of more value to a local publisher than a standalone website” and he has therefore been posting directly to the Pulman’s page for years rather than giving people a tease and asking them to click through – the website mimics a social media feed rather than having a traditional layout. He works with advertisers to accommodate them on the page itself and support this style of posting.

Williams said this had helped him pass the eligibility test as Meta wants people creating content specifically for the platform rather than primarily posting external links.

Facebook first introduced subscriptions, formerly known as fan subscriptions, in 2018. But they have never taken off among news publishers and may now represent an opportunity to claw something back from the platform.

To be eligible, a Facebook page must meet certain criteria including having either 10,000 followers or at least 250 return views. It must also have reached either 50,000 post engagements or 180,000 watch minutes in the previous 60 days, and be in compliance with Facebook’s monetisation policies.

Williams said: “I feel that as soon as this is made aware to most publishers, they will want to try it.”

Duncan Williams
Duncan Williams

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report this summer, Facebook does remain the most-used social media platform for news (17% in the UK) even though this is down from a peak of 28% in 2016.

Gen Z (currently aged up to 26) have particularly moved away from Facebook and towards Instagram, visual mobile-first media and then Tiktok since 2018.

But in a world where the platform makes up a sizeable amount of time spent yet referral traffic has plummeted and publishers nonetheless continue to post on the platform to stay in front of the Facebook native audience, topping up revenue with subscriptions from that crowd could be a nice added extra source – especially as Substack has shown people are willing to pay for a community and content they care about.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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