Inside the Facebook news team's race to address COVID-19 — after it hit close to home
As Facebook's leadership rushed to get reliable news to billions of Facebook users, one of the company's top news executives was recovering from the virus.
Anne Kornblut was working from home when the crushing headache set in. It was early March, and she had a battery of calls to get through with her colleagues at Facebook, where Kornblut is director of news curation. It was also her husband's birthday, and that night she'd planned a celebratory dinner.
But the pain was excruciating. Kornblut hung up the phone and lay down, expecting the headache to pass. It didn't, and soon she had a fever. "I thought: Could it be?" Kornblut told Protocol. "What are the odds?"
Kornblut drove herself to a COVID-19 testing center in Santa Clara County, and three days later she received a call telling her she'd tested positive. Shortly after, her husband got the same call.
"It was pretty alarming," Kornblut said, recalling just how little was known about the virus in the United States that second week in March. "I didn't know the trajectory mine would take."
Like most Facebook employees, Kornblut had already been working from home for days, but she alerted anyone she had come into contact with. For the following weeks, Kornblut was laid up, living under what she describes as a "brain fog" that made it nearly impossible to work — but not working was impossible, too. Those few weeks were some of the most urgent and relentless in the Facebook's news team's history.
With COVID-19 sweeping the planet, demand for reliable news on Facebook — a platform not always associated with reliable news — has been at an all-time high. News readership on Facebook steadily grew throughout the month of March, and the Facebook news team raced to respond. They wanted to financially support floundering local publishers who were covering the story and show readers the most accurate, up-to-date stories about a global pandemic that had already touched one of their own.
The same week Kornblut received her diagnosis, Mark Zuckerberg called a video meeting with Campbell Brown — Facebook's head of News — and other members of the News product team. He wanted to discuss ways Facebook could integrate high-quality journalism into a new COVID-19 Information Center. The company had been testing a version of the product in Singapore and Italy, showing Facebook users updates from the World Health Organization and local ministries of health.
But Brown said Zuckerberg wanted to give news a more prominent place in the Center before launching it widely in the U.S. and other countries. That instinct was driven in part by conversations Zuckerberg had with Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control, who now runs the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives, which is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. A Facebook spokesperson said Frieden stressed to Zuckerberg in late February that the virus was no longer containable, and outcomes were likely to be far grimmer than initially expected.
"Mark was the real driver there in saying we've got to make this front and center and easily accessible to as many people as possible," Brown said.
The weekend of March 14, with everyone sheltering at home, Zuckerberg himself worked with a team of about 20, including Facebook news's product manager, Mona Sarantakos, to build the new iteration of the Information Center. The engineering team barely slept for days. "The team went into basically a lockdown to get it done," Brown said.
On March 17, Zuckerberg announced the new Information Center on a press call, and the following day, it went live in the U.S. and other countries, appearing at the top of Facebook users' news feeds. Since then, Facebook said it's directed more than 2 billion people to health information resources through the Information Center and other pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram.
That was only one part of the news team's strategy. Last fall, Facebook also debuted a feature called Facebook News, a section of the mobile app filled with top news, some of which is curated by a global team of former journalists, including Kornblut, who leads the effort. Facebook had been slowly rolling out Facebook News to users throughout the winter.
The day her headache set in, and it became clear that news would be key to Facebook's pandemic response, Kornblut was on a call trying to figure out how to manage the curation team's increased responsibilities. Even after her diagnosis, Kornblut said she never totally let herself unplug.
"I really wanted to reassure people that I was OK. I didn't mind going to meetings," Kornblut said. "And I wanted them to feel like they could tell me what things were hard for them, because even though I had this, everybody has really hard things that they're struggling with, whether it's an aging parent or having multiple small children in the home."
"She didn't want people to feel like she was taking a step back in this critical moment, even though she was ill herself," said Brown, who has been friends with Kornblut since they were reporters covering the 2000 presidential race. "I was trying to push her to take it easy, and it wasn't her nature."
Anne Kornblut, Facebook's director of news curation, found herself exhausted from COVID-19 while trying to support the company's editorial response to the pandemic.Photo: Courtesy of Anne Kornblut
In addition to curating the stories in the Information Center, Kornblut's team launched a new section of Facebook News devoted to coronavirus stories. It's updated 24 hours a day by a team spread among San Francisco, London, New York and Singapore. Kornblut said the team, which "follows the sun" in terms of its schedule, operates like most newsrooms, chatting on Facebook's enterprise tool, Workplace, about which stories merit inclusion.
"The team is looking for different criteria: Is it widely reported? By whom? What kind of attribution is there," Kornblut said. "If it's a local story, is there a local publisher we should feature instead of one of the big national publishers?"
Facebook has begun featuring local news in its own section of Facebook News as well. "People trust and want local news more than any other type of news, but in this case, it was even more so," Brown said.
But the COVID-19 crisis has been particularly cruel to local publishers, which were already struggling. Facebook has historically gotten a lot of the blame for that struggle. It gobbled up the online advertising market, after all. And every time it tinkers with its algorithm, it can have disastrous effects for publishers.
Under Brown's tenure, which began in 2017, the company has made some overtures to news organizations. For instance, it now pays some top-tier publishers like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal for access to their stories, some of which the company shares in Facebook News. And last year, the company announced a $300 million investment in local news, consisting of grants and an accelerator program that trains newsrooms in building reader-sponsored business models, among other techniques.
But some of the local news partners that have participated in those programs have been absolutely crushed by the COVID crisis. "It's hard to describe the sudden shock it was to the system," said Duc Luu, chief development officer and publisher of Washington City Paper in Washington, D.C. Luu told Protocol that the paper was set to break revenue records this quarter, but when D.C. went into lockdown, ad funding from local restaurants, event spaces and other businesses in the area dried up.
"By the end of that week, every other email was people saying they needed to suspend their campaign. It became an avalanche," Luu said.
The Facebook news team began hearing these stories from so many publishers that participated in the accelerator program that it quickly announced it would be giving away $1 million in the form of $5,000 grants to local newsrooms. Within 48 hours, 200 newsrooms had applied. Within days,1,000 newsrooms applied.
So Facebook expanded the program to $2 million. But Zuckerberg was simultaneously having his own conversations with publishers and media executives. Brown said he came to her and asked her to come up with options that could have a bigger impact.
"We wanted local to be the focus. This is the moment when everybody is trying to find out what's going on in their community," Brown said. "We needed to make sure nobody was closing their doors."
Brown worked closely with Facebook's marketing team to craft a plan to give local newsrooms another $25 million in grants of up to $100,000 each. Facebook then committed to spending $75 million advertising with local publishers in the hardest hit countries.
"At a time when most advertisers are pulling back all their spending, we were in a unique position to lean forward and increase our marketing spend," Brown said. (Facebook's advertising is also down, but the company is hardly hurting for cash.)
Washington City Paper received one of Facebook's $5,000 emergency grants at the end of March, which Luu said went toward setting up the newsroom's servers so staff could connect to them remotely. It also helped pay for the cost of printing the paper. Now, Facebook has committed to giving all of its accelerator recipients additional grants as part of its $25 million commitment.
Luu said the first Facebook grant was a "bridge" to help the paper get through the month of March. But not all of Facebook's critics believe these grants are the right long-term business response to the crisis in local news. David Chavern, president and CEO of the news industry trade group the News Media Alliance, described the grants as "charity."
"You'll never hear me criticize anybody for giving charity. If they're giving grants to news publishers, god bless. But charity is not what the news business needs," Chavern said. "What the news business needs is a sustainable business relationship, in which one of the biggest distributors of their content, Facebook, returns value back to the creators of the content."
Facebook does pay to access stories from a small number of local publishers for the Facebook News tab. Facebook has also been working to promote what it deems to be more authoritative sources of news throughout the platform. As part of that, Brown said Facebook has begun factoring in whether a given news outlet actually invests in original reporting. "That does tend to be local news organizations," Brown said.
A recent internal Facebook report described in The New York Times suggested that in March, Facebook drove a surge in traffic to news publishers in general, but that local news outlets got a bigger boost. Of course, a surge in readership doesn't help those outlets pay the bills if their advertising is drying up.
Brown, for one, acknowledged that Facebook can't take credit for so much heightened readership. "To me, that's not about us. This is about the news cycle," Brown said. "But I do think we can take advantage of this moment to ensure that we're doing everything possible to direct people to the most authoritative sources."
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Going forward, Brown said her team's entire mission has been reoriented toward addressing the COVID crisis. It's redesigning what was an in-person accelerator program to now include webinars and video workshops. And Brown said Facebook News, which is still a work in progress and is therefore not easy to find in the Facebook app, will likely come out of hiding soon.
Kornblut is mostly recovered and grateful to have had what she calls "one of the very easiest cases." She said the experience of actually going through the news event that her team was covering in real time gave them all a renewed purpose. "Everyone was excited to work on it before I got sick, and then when I got back, it was clear to me that sense of mission had just taken off," Kornblut said, adding, "I still owe them paid time off."