Facebook: Journalists’ friend or foe?

May 23, 2011, 4:24 PM UTC

By Peter Lauria, contributor

A new Facebook effort aims to help journalists use social media. But other motives may be at work.

FORTUNE — Vadim Lavrusik, the cherub-cheeked 25-year old who heads up Facebook’s new journalist program initiative, has been generating a lot of chatter in media circles, and not just for his thoughtful missives about how ink-stained wretches could better utilize the social network to promote their work or find sources. His arrival, along with a few other moves by the social-media company, suggests Facebook may be looking at ways to turn the site into a distribution — and money making — platform for news.

Lavrusik joined Facebook in April in part to help educate reporters, writers and editors on the benefits of using the site as a tool for gathering sources and distributing news. (Lavrusik’s outreach shouldn’t be confused with Facebook’s clumsy effort to get journalists to write negative stories about rival Google.)

Facebook has already proven itself an important distribution outlet for news organizations. Lavrusik says the average news site experienced a more than 300 percent increase in Facebook referrals since the beginning of 2010. And 5 of the top 25 most popular news websites in the U.S. ranked Facebook as the No. 2 or No. 3 driver of traffic to their sites, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next,” notes the study. “Facebook is beginning to join Google (GOOG) as one of the most influential players in driving news audiences.”

But Facebook’s motivation for putting the “news” in its News Feed isn’t purely out of its passion for the Fourth Estate. The company recognizes that understanding what articles its users read and recommend will enhance its ability to anticipate their interests and needs. (And, thus, serve up more relevant advertising.)

More importantly, though, many people believe Facebook sees news as a way to expand the “interest graph,” a network of people who share the same interests but aren’t necessarily friends. “Facebook is going to always look to extend the “interest graph” of its users across as many horizontal categories as it can,” wrote Mark Cuban in an email interview for this story.

If Facebook is to function as users’ home page — the first place they go in the morning and the last site the view before bed — it needs to provide news and information. “If they do it well, it will unquestionably create huge traffic bursts beyond the impact of users posting on walls,” Cuban adds.

Today it isn’t clear whether any of this would translate into revenue opportunities for news organizations that supply content to Facebook, but Lavrusik indicates the company would be open to partnering with media companies. “Anything is possible, we are very much in the infancy stage of this and have no plans for anything like that now, but I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he said.

On the flipside, Facebook may want a cut of revenue for driving traffic to media companies’ news sites. The company said it wouldn’t charge or take a cut of earnings from application developers like gaming company Zynga, but has required them to use Facebook credits instead of their own currency systems — essentially taxing the developers for using its platform. Similarly, Facebook could require news outlets that charge for acesss, The New York Times or Wall Street Journal, to charge Facebook-generated customers in Facebook credits . Lavrusik called the possibility an “interesting idea.”

Still, Lavrusik insists the journalist program today is a straightforward marketing initiative; indeed, the initiative falls under the aegis of consumer-marketing head Randi Zuckerberg, who doesn’t typically get involved in profit-making efforts. If anything, Facebook’s initative is a bit reminiscent of an ongoing effort at Google to visit newsrooms, teaching journalists how to use Google’s various tools (Google Maps, Google Analytics) to research and source stories. The relationship between Google and publishers has been strained, though, because media companies feel Google has benefitted tremendously from third-party content without compensating newsrooms.

If Facebook can foster a friendly relationship with news outlets by, say, helping them monetize the increasing amount of referrals coming from the social network, it could end up being a win-win for both parties.