From Fake News to No News: How Facebook Is Hurting Publishers

Over the past ten years, 300 local print titles have disappeared, while social media has excelled at an unprecedented rate. And while digitalisation has welcomed groundbreaking developments for many industries, the brute force of Silicon Valley has brought trouble for publishers. Now, for an industry that has been made to accept a new order time and time again, things are about to get a whole lot worse, as media outlets are once again forced to re-examine their efforts.

If you manage social media for a publisher, prepare to spend a lot less time focusing on your Facebook Page this year

The Facebook-Google duopoly is expected to take 71% of all the money spent in the UK on digital advertising by 2020, according to industry analysis. To put that in perspective, between 2005 – 2016, UK publishers saw their total share of advertising revenue waste away from £5bn to just £2.3bn, while Google’s stock surged from £1bn to above £6bn over the same period.

Between 2016 to now, things have continued on a downward spiral. Publishers were previously advised to invest their time and money into Facebook Instant Articles and News Feed videos, but following the fake news epidemic and an ever-growing focus on ad revenue, the majority of publishers have entered the new year faced with an ugly reality about the relationship they have with the world’s largest tech giants.

Earlier this week, Google was placed in the firing line from publishers who rely on it and Facebook for 80% of their traffic, after a ‘temporary glitch’ saw several publishers removed from Google News, during an apparently ‘unintentional purge.’ Facebook is also deprioritising publishers entirely this year, with many being warned not to rely on the platform at all as it focuses its attention on voice recognition and long-form video.

For some time it has been speculated that Facebook would split its News Feed this year, following tests of an Explore feed and more recently, Today In, a section meant to contain local news. Just yesterday, the bad news was broken that Facebook would indeed be making changes to its News Feed that will drastically change how the platform works for publishers. The updated News Feed will seek to split social and media, and aim to place the user back at the centre of the Facebook experience by prioritising posts from friends – at the expense of public content, such as that from news outlets and publishers.

Mark Zuckerberg announced the update, saying: “I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.” Zuckerberg also acknowledged that “the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down.” But also claimed the time we spend on Facebook will be “more valuable.”

What we’ve learned: publishers have lost control over their distribution. If we’re being honest, it was and never will be sustainable for them to simply pivot to video and expect that to make up the difference for them in ROI. Even if they could spare the cash it takes to create high-quality video content, tomorrow, the duopoly could simply change their mind, click their fingers, and watch the world scramble to adapt to the new normal as dictated by them.

Publishers’ desire to finally break free of reliance on Facebook will fuel a revolution

The good news is that publishers are finally waking up to this fact, and have seen the need to diversify their revenue streams – and fast. The hardest investment decision they face now is finding the critical balance between destination and distribution. Even second order companies like Twitter and Snapchat currently have more control than news outlets themselves over who publishes what and to whom, and how that publication is monetised. The Daily Beast, however, reports that only 20% of Snapchat users on average consume content from a publisher’s Discover edition daily, meaning many have had no choice but to spend more to gain less.

On the duopoly’s habit of prioritising money over quality or credibility, BuzzFeed founder and chief executive Jonah Peretti said: “It puts high-quality creators at a financial disadvantage, and favors publishers of cheap media: fake news, propaganda and conspiracy theories, quickly re-written stories with sensationalistic spin, shady offshore content farms, algorithmically generated content, and pirated videos.”

Clearly, Facebook has its own worries when it comes to publishers on the platform – fake news might seem like a headline that belongs in yesterday’s papers, but it is still very much a problem for the social media behemoth.

Mark Zuckerberg has been asked several times whether he considers his platform to be a publisher or a place for distribution, and it seems this recent update to the News Feed is his answer to that. Ultimately, his loyalty lies with the user and with advertisers. Publishers are going to have to carve their own path if they hope to survive.

The future for publishers lies in private sharing and community building through a wide range of platforms

Although publishers might be cutting ties with the Facebook feed, signs show that in 2018 many will cultivate Facebook Groups as a way to earn loyalty through providing a sense of community. Groups integrate well into strategies based around building and nurturing niche audiences and creating subject or audience-specific content, so could prove essential in keeping news alive on the platform.

But while Groups provide a glimmer of hope, publishers remain the only business type that should absolutely not prioritise Facebook. With that in mind, memberships and subscriptions, closed groups and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, and even podcasts will also become paramount in keeping these publications afloat. Algorithms can push news content down the pile, but it will always be sought out – if users have a reason to.

Speaking anonymously to Digiday, one publisher revealed: “We need to see how we’re going to elevate our journalists on Facebook the way they elevate themselves on Twitter. Our journalists have huge social capital there. Groups are going to be interest-oriented hubs, and it’s going to be important to watch that. It’s very much going to be the year of the individual brand.”

Facebook’s hold over news organisations has been strong – until now – but social media is often dictated by the user, and as long as the public has a desire to keep news in their social feeds, be that through Groups or other avenues, it will stay. If publishers can effectively focus not on broadcasting to the masses, but on honing in on their own dedicated communities and building strength from within these, publishing won’t just survive, it could even thrive.

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