How Facebook stole the news business

How Facebook stole the news business
From TechCrunch - February 3, 2018

Big news outlets stupidly sold their soul to Facebook. Desperate for the referral traffic Facebook dangled, they spent the past few years jumping through its hoops only to be cut out of the equation. Instead of developing an owned audience of homepage visitors and newsletter subscribers, they let Facebook brainwash readers into thinking it was their source of information.

Now Facebook is pushing into local news, but publishers should be wary of making the same crooked deal. It might provide more exposure and traffic for smaller outlets today, but it could teach users they only need to visit Facebook for local news in the future. Heres how Facebook retrained us over the past 12 years to drain the dollars out of news.

Users first is Facebook first later

To be clear, Facebooks intention, that I believe to be earnest, is to foster stronger ties between its users and their communities to boost well-being. But that doesnt mean ripple effects are positive. The critical lens through which to view all of Facebooks strategy is that in the short term it puts users first, itself second and everyone else a distant, distant third. That includes developers, advertisers and definitely news publishers.

This strategy is actually self-serving in the long term, though, because Facebook only continues to dominate because its users dont leave. Back in 2010, Facebook decimated the virality of game developers like Zynga, which made lots of money because their News Feed spam threatened to push people away from the social network. That short-term hit to the bottom line paved the way for the depth of engagement that fuels quarters where Facebook earns $4 billion today.

This explains CEO Mark Zuckerbergs recent announcement that Facebook would make changes to enhance well-being even if it decreased time spent on the site or its ad revenue. Those consequences may be true in the short term. But its a shrewd tactic when you zoom out. Left unchecked, the Time Well Spent movement couldmetastasizeinto a Time to leave Facebook movement. Better to trade away a few minutes per day per user now to keep those users for years to come.

Retraining news readers

When Facebook started, there was no feed. You browsed from profile to profile to check up on friends. News Feeds launch in 2006 retrained users to just go to the Facebook home page where everything would come to you. Brands followed, investing to build an audience through Facebooks churning stream of content.

As Facebooks users shifted from PCs and Macs to Androids and iPhones, the company struck upon an enduring format for mobile. Desktop computers had big enough screens to accomodate multiple windows, and switching between browser tabs was quick, allowing users to easily hop between different sites. But on mobile with tiny screens, low quality app, poor connections, slow-loading sites, people seized upon Facebooks single app that pulled together content from everywhere. Facebook began to train us to keep scrolling rather than struggle to bounce around.

In 2011, when Facebook first took notice of Twitter, it launched its public figure Subscribe feature and news links gained more visibility in the feed. By 2014, Facebook the big news machine was in full swing with Trending, hashtags and news outlets pouring resources into growing their Pages.Emphasizing the news in News Feed retrained users to wait for the big world-changing headlines to come to them rather than crisscrossing the home pages of various publishers. Many dont even click-through, getting the gist of the news just from the headline and preview blurb. Advertisers followed the eyeballs, moving their spend from the publisher sites to Facebook.

In 2015, Facebook realized users hated waiting for slow mobile websites to load, so it launched Instant Articles to host publisher content within its own app. Instant Articles trained users not to even visit news sites when they clicked their links, instead only having the patience for a fast-loading native page stripped of the publishers identity and many of their recirculation and monetization opportunities. Advertisers followed, as publishers allowed Facebook to sell the ads on Instant Articles for them and thereby surrendered their advertiser relationships at the same time as their reader relationships.

This is how Facebook turns publishers into ghostwriters, a problem I blew the whistle on in 2015. Publishers are pitted against each other as they make interchangeable dumb content for Facebooks smart pipes.

Publishers wisely began pushing back, demanding more layout and monetization flexibility, and many abandoned the platform in favor of Googles less prescriptive AMP platform for fast-loading mobile pages. In fact, 38 of 72 Instant Articles launch partner publications including the New York Times and Washington Post have ditched the Facebook controlled format according to a study by Columbia Journalism Review.

Still, publishers have few major sources of traffic outside of Facebook and Google Search. With the death of Google Reader and Twitters move to an algorithmic feed, theres still no at-scale, unfiltered place to share or follow news. If people do want a more direct relationship with news, they should get on Feedly or another RSS readers, or add a few favorite sites to their browsers bookmark bar.

Meanwhile, Facebooks only goal remains to provide value to users, and when it comes to content, it doesnt really care which publisher provides it as long as its high-quality.

Siphoning resources to the center

Again and again, Facebook has centralized attention typically spread across the web. A few years back I wrote about 20 New Ways Facebook Is Eating The Internet, and its appetite has only grown. Its trying to do the same with Watch (YouTube), Marketplace (Craigslist and eBay) and many other features. Its a smart plan that ends up arguably improving the experience for individual usersor at least offering new options while making Facebook more essential and much richer.

The problem is that for society as a whole, this leads to a demonetization and eventual defunding of some news publishers, content creators and utility providers while simultaneously making them heavily reliant on Facebook. This gives Facebook the power to decide what types of content, what topics, and what sources are important. Even if Facebook believes itself to be a neutral tech platform, it implicitly plays the role of media company as its values define the feed. Having a single editors fallible algorithms determine the news consumption of the wired world is a precarious situation.

The business side is just as troubling. As Ben Thompson of Stratechery has described, advertisers are abandoning news sites and aggregating to Facebook where they can more efficiently target their exact customers, where they go every day. Why advertise on an intermediary news site when businesses can go straight to well of attention. Without the massive scale and adtech, individual publishers cant compete for dollars.

Steamrolled by strategy change

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